Thursday, December 31, 2009

5N4 - The Leisure Hive 4

The Leisure Hive concludes with easily my favourite transition from incidental music to end theme music in the history of Doctor Who. It helps that Peter Howell did both sections of music to make this transition as appealing as it is, of course. Howell's suite during the generator sequence brings that scene to life, as well, and is a rare opportunity for a composer to take centre stage that Dudley Simpson was never afforded (or asked for, possibly).

I've enjoyed The Leisure Hive, but I've noticed that I've mostly focused on the design aspects of the production. The story itself is entertaining enough on its own, as written by David Fisher. But it's the script editing of one Christopher Hamilton Bidmead that gives it, and the entirety of Season 18, its science based bent. Bidmead also excised most, if not all, extraneous material from Fisher's scripts. The result is four tightly paced episodes, some of which, after extra long reprises and credit sequences, still barely manage to make it past the 20-minute mark in duration.

I know that Bidmead gets a lot of flack in Who circles, if only for his raging ego, but I imagine that his work on the series is one of the reasons why I enjoy Season 18 so much. However, Bidmead's desire to set the series back on the course of science after several years of fantastical storylines may have swung the pendulum too far to the other side. When too much science creeps into things, the drama stalls. When the characters take over, The Leisure Hive can be an enjoyable watch indeed.

5N3 - The Leisure Hive 3

The climax to Episode Two is more proof that this new vision of Doctor Who was going to take more chances than ever before. It also appeared that it was going to put The Doctor in more situations that he couldn't immediately get out of. Case in point: rapidly aging The Doctor 500 years so that he appears as an old man, at the very end of his regeneration. Not only can The Doctor not reverse the effects of the generator, but he is too weak to quickly come up with a solution.

The end result of this is not only a more interesting story on account of a more vulnerable hero, but a dynamite performance of this old Doctor by Tom Baker. Baker doesn't play an old Doctor, he plays his Doctor as an old man - still in possession of all his vim and vigour, but with nowhere near the energy. It's a brilliant turn by Baker (and an equally brilliant make-up job) that proves that despite whatever discomfort in his new situation was giving him off screen, Baker was more than capable of delivering the goods when the cameras were rolling.

Baker's performance isn't the only good performance in this, though, as Adrienne Corri as Mena and, especially, David Haig as Pangol do superlative jobs in bringing their characters to life, as well.

5N2 - The Leisure Hive 2

Director Lovett Bickford may have gone wildly overtime and over budget while making this story, but, even though it meant that Bickford would never work on the series again, the results proved that Bickford was precisely the right man for the job of introducing the series to the 1980s.

Bickford's direction is filmic and ambitious, with numerous shots set up as if it were for a film shoot. The results gives the story a unique, slick look that has seldom been duplicated in the series, before or since. Many shots are in tight close-up (David Haig as Pangol is a benefactor of many a shot for the show reel), yet others are shot in long shot from behind corners. Look at the scene where Mena explains the history of the Hive and the Argolin-Foamasi war to both The Doctor and Romana. All three characters are shot in profile, with only the red-orange light from the radioactive surface of Argolis serving as illumination during the entire scene. The camera never wavers throughout the entire scene. It's art house direction in a teatime science fiction drama.

The only thing that detracts from the story on a technical side is that most of the sets had ceilings, thanks to Bickford's predilection for low angle camera shots, which means that boom microphone placement was difficult. Coupled with that are the fact that most of the sets are made out of corrugated metal. All these factors combine to make a lot of the dialogue tracks sounds hollow and tinny.

5N1 - The Leisure Hive 1

Within seconds of it starting, The Leisure Hive assures us that it will be just about the boldest step that Doctor Who has ever taken as a programme in its 18-year history. Never before, even with the transition from black and white to colour, from space faring exploration to UNIT-dominated action, from family adventure to Gothic horror, has Doctor Who made such a bold, visual leap from one season to the next.

The main reason for this is the revamped theme tune. The mere notion that the new producer, John Nathan-Turner, was willing to make a wholesale change in the theme music (as well as the incidental music) was enough to show that nothing was sacred with this show anymore. Luckily, it was an experiment that was an unqualified success. Peter Howell's version of the theme tune had so much going up against it, most notably a perfect rendering of the theme that had preceded it for the previous 17 years. Yet Howell made enough of the song his own while retaining the core fundamentals that made the original version of the song so beautiful. The big change was raising the key of the song from E to F#, which gives the song a little more intensity, and the higher pitch makes the melody line really punch in a way that the old version couldn't quite do.

Howell's incidental music score for the rest of the episode (and story) is just as impressive, possibly the most daring and confident score of the Nathan-Turner era. It's also known for it's ubiquity - barely a second goes by without Howell's pulsating synthesizers underscoring the action.

The opening shot of the episode has as many detractors as it has fans. Many see it, and the slightly stoic storyline, as main reasons why people turned off BBC1 in droves to check out Buck Rogers on ITV (the cripplingly low ratings are, as I'll explore in greater detail, the only blemish on what is a superb season of Doctor Who). Personally, that first, slow pan across a dreary Brighton beach is a visual representative of where the show had come from, and where it was going. The camera finally stops on a tired, worn out, shell of a Fourth Doctor - once cocky and confident, now weighed down by the universe, surrounded by much that is new and exciting. His clothes, although similar in silhouette, bear only a passing resemblance to what he has worn for years in the past.

He is, and this will become a theme throughout Tom Baker's final season, a man beyond his time.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

5M6 - Shada 6

Despite the fact that most of the jokey scenes in this story were never recorded before cameras, their presence is still felt. The description of The Doctor's improvised helmet, complete with a chunk of old table top, would have been difficult to take seriously. Similarly, and in a scene that actually was completed, The Doctor pins a medal on Romana after the latter comes up with a brilliant idea, and later, when time is supposedly pressing, wastes time with a humourous speech before Romana (always the straight man) snaps at him to get on with it.

These scenes hammer home the point that, although intended to be the centrepiece of Season 17 and to be a fitting swansong for Graham Williams, Shada would have still been laced with the undergraduate humour that had been so prevalent throughout much of Season 17. What's tragic about the fate of Shada is that, after two consecutive years that saw Williams struggle to make ends meet before the end of a season, finally learned from these tribulations and socked enough money away to make the finale a much stronger story, only to have the rug pulled out from under him by those above him.

Graham Williams is, perhaps, the unluckiest producer in Doctor Who history. Forced to follow the hugely successful, yet hugely expensive and controversial, Philip Hinchcliffe era, Williams was behind on the count before he even stepped up to the plate. His stories were strong, for the most part, but intended to purely entertain and amuse as opposed to frighten the children that his predecessor was so good at (and received reprimanding for). By the end of the era, though, the programme had started to become a bit stale and bloated. A fresh start was needed to rejuvenate the onscreen product, and yet still maintain the high viewing figures that the programme was achieving at the time.

The man entrusted with this task was John Nathan-Turner who, alarmingly, would be the only producer the series would have for the rest of the run of the classic series. Bring on the 1980s.

5M5 - Shada 5

The Krargs are interesting creatures, if only because it's sometimes difficult to pick out what shape they actually are. This could be because of the video effects used on them to make them appear to be made out of molten lava (was this an original effect?), but they are at least better than the Mandrels from a story before.

The cliffhanger reprise in this episode is much longer than the others in this story, if only pad out the length even more, as it's obvious now that most of the material that was never shot was intended for the final two episodes.

Chris Parsons is actually a memorable de facto companion in this story, replacing Romana who spends most of the story captured by Skagra. He even has a nickname given to him by The Doctor - "Bristol". What's more alarming about Parsons (who is slightly based on Douglas Adams) is that he's a young, impulsive, know-it-all - not too different from the character of Adric who would be introduced into the series the next season Of course, unlike Adric, Bristol is actually an interesting and well acted character...

5M4 - Shada 4

We're robbed of a sequence in this episode of The Doctor convincing and reprogramming a space ship's computer to turn into a TARDIS. Tom Baker's narration only briefly touches upon the perceived science required to perform this fantastic feat. It's the only bit of TARDIS-related bafflegab in this episode.

For equally confusing reasons, a chance pulling of a lever by Claire brings Professor Chronitis back to life (complete with a nightgown and cap on!), with a bit of verbal sleight-of-hand spewed forth by Douglas Adams to cover up what happened. It's a bit of a double bluff on the part of Adams. Is he making all of this up, but, because he seems to know what he's talking about, and speaks from a background of a great interest in science, do we believe him?

I suppose the supposed time science in this story is best explained by a line Chronitis says in this episode: "Think of me as a paradox within an anomaly and get on with your tea."

Friday, December 25, 2009

5M3 - Shada 3

One of the most ingenious aspects of Shada is the concept of an invisible spaceship as created by Douglas Adams. It's a set designer's dream, really, and it could be seen as an easy way out of an expensive situation.

But an invisible spaceship is easily the best way for an alien to hide somewhere. It's such a good idea that it's been used at least twice since Shada - in the 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and again in Doctor Who in the 2007 story Human Nature/The Family of Blood.

However, it's what visible that is the highlight of this episode - Skagra's costume. If ever the phrase "space pimp" could ever be applied to anyone, it would be applied to Skagra. With a flowing cape and truly bombastic hat, Skagra is one the more outlandishly cool looking villains in Doctor Who, and holds his own, in a more futuristic sense, with the previously style king in Season 17, Count Scarlioni from City of Death.

5M2 - Shada 2

The frustrating thing about Shada is that, at the beginning, you almost think that more footage has been shot than you've heard about. Almost the entire first half of Episode One plays out as it would have had the story been completed, thanks to most of the scenes being shot on location on film, and thus done first, as per normal production standards at the time.

We're also spared a great deal of the whimsy that would have probably found its way into the script, although with Douglas Adams editing his own material, this might not have been the case. There still is enough humour to carry the day, though, particularly in the first Doctor/Romana scene that sees The Doctor's attempts at punting on the Cam go tremendously wrong.

The centrepiece of Episode Two is a chase through the streets of Cambridge as The Doctor, on a bicycle, tries to escape the mysterious brain stealing sphere of Skagra's design. It's a well shot sequence, and I can't help but think that somehow this sequence would have made for a much better insertion into The Five Doctors than the punting scene that was eventually used. Instead of the sphere, The Doctor could have just as easily been running away from a black triangle, couldn't he have?

5M1 - Shada 1

I thought long and hard about including Shada in this Chronic Hysteresis, but was eventually swayed by two things. One, Shada has an official BBC production code, therefore it's canon, in my eyes, and two, I realized that I mentioned that I would definitely review this story way back in the very first article written for this site...

In watching Shada, I concentrated only on the 1992 BBC Video release that tied together the existing footage with narration from Tom Baker, who filled in what happened in the scenes that were, sadly, never shot before a union strike halted the production story partway through production in 1979. I purposely did not reference the superb 2003 BBCi production starring Paul McGann as, lovely though it may be, it was not the Shada that was supposed to have been seen in early 1980, even if it did use virtually the same scripts that the 1979 production had to work with.

Also, I will try not to comment on Tom Baker's narration or Keff McCulloch's supposedly Dudley Simpson-esque score, as these were elements that weren't supposed to be in the original version, either. I also realize that some episodes will be harder to review than others given the amount of scenes that were never shot for some episodes (Romana doesn't feature on screen at all in Episode Five, for instance), but I will try and make do.

On with the show...

5L4 - The Horns of Nimon 4

I can't avoid this anymore: Graham Crowden gives one of the more unforgettable performances in this story in anything. Ever. Simultaneously channeling Ming the Merciless, it seems, and every other over-the-top cartoon villain ever created in modern science fiction, Crowden's Soldeed really must be seen and heard to be believed. His famous death scene, which Crowden apparently didn't know was the actual take, and thus laughed maniacally at the end, actually isn't out of character at all, because I could totally see Soldeed doing exactly that.

The fact that Soldeed's body disappears in the next scene, though, is a bigger bone of contention. It is just one of many lazy directorial flourishes from first (and last) timer to Doctor Who, Kenny McBain, in a story that has been, if it's possible, over the top in its laziness. There is no restraint seen in any aspect of this story - everything is blown so far out of proportion and scale that there is absolutely nothing believable in any of the characters actions or motives. The worst thing possible is happening here - Doctor Who is being played for laughs, and there's no one around to stop it. Certainly not the producer, the director, or the leading actor. This story, above any other, shows the distinct need to stop the madness that Doctor Who had become and pull in the reins to make respectable science fiction drama again.

In short, The Horns of Nimon is possibly the most ludicrous story ever produced, and another one best viewed in retrospect. At the time, it was probably looked upon as laughably bad. Now? It's laughably good. Not just for its faults, but because of them, you may never have a more enjoyable time watching a Doctor Who story.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

5L3 - The Horns of Nimon 3

Blissfully, we're lucky to be able to see one of the more ridiculous segments in Doctor Who twice - once at the end of Episode Two, and again during the reprise in Episode Three. Malcolm Terris, an otherwise capable actor, camps his way through pleading through his life at the hands (horns?) of the Nimon before getting shot down and having his pants split open.

There's yet another nod to pantomime in this episode when the Nimon is operating the transmat device, astoundingly unaware of The Doctor, Romana, Seth, and anyone else that might happen to be passing loudly through the room. You can almost hear the children in the live audience yelling out to the Nimon "He's behind you!", but then the Nimon, in the true spirit of good natured fun, keeps looking in the wrong direction, much to the delight of everyone watching.

The Nimon(s) don't need such scenes to make them look ridiculous, though. They already look ridiculous enough on their own. Whose great idea was it to create the story's title monster by putting a ballet dancer in tights and platform shoes and throwing an oversized, novelty foam bull's mask on his head? This story really is

5L2 - The Horns of Nimon 2

Romana does a very, very foolish thing in this episode, but, in a way, I'm very glad that she does. In a fit of pique, she slams down her newly made sonic screwdriver before being led out of the ship's bridge by the co-pilot (who manages to sneak in his fourth retort of "weakling scum!" towards the Anethans before returning to the bridge). Conveniently, Romana's lack of screwdriver prevents her from breaking into the bridge again, and thus she is resorted to sitting and hearing Seth and Teka's tales of woe (No other Anethan dares utter a word, lest the actors portraying them get paid more money in a time when, plainly, the budget would run to cover it).

Good thing that we don't see that sonic screwdriver again, because that would have made the already near invincible Doctor/Romana/K-9 combo even more indomitable. The only threat that they've encountered thus far is a very shouty and over-the-top co-pilot...who actually doesn't stand out much in that regard in a story like this.

Back to the panto - look at Sorak's outfit at the top of this page. There has never been a more way out and operatic costume in Doctor Who. And I use the word "operatic" with precision - it looks like there's a replica of the Sydney Opera House on each of Sorak's arms. His helmet is adorned with what appears to be a cross between daggers and horse blinders. The plumage on top of his helmet (and those of the rest of the Skonnon guards) border on making him look like a peacock.

And then there's the comedy sound effects when the TARDIS console explodes, the crowd that doesn't know when to cheer during Soldeed's speech, and, for the second article in a row, Soldeed...

5L1 - The Horns of Nimon 1

Apart from Episode 7 of The Daleks' Master Plan, The Feast of Steven, which went out on Christmas Day 1965, the first official Christmas special in Doctor Who was 2005's The Christmas Invasion, beginning a yearly custom that has become an annual tradition. We are all forgetting, of course, The Horns of Nimon, which is the closest Doctor Who ever came to full on pantomime in the show's long history.

Everything about this story is high camp. Look at the pilot of the ship taking the tribute from Aneth to Skonnos. He's played by an actor called Bob Hornery, who actually hasn't appeared in much over the years, but is the type of actor who looks like he may have at one time. You almost feel embarrassed for him, wearing his costume with wild shoulder pads and crazy triangular ornaments on his chest and helmet, forced to shout lines like "Blundering fool! You've wrecked it!". If Ian McKellen ever did panto, it would look like this.

And then there's the Anethans themselves, weakling scum that they are, dressed in bright yellow pajamas that make them look like the kids from Peter Pan, flying away on a magical journey to some dark and foreign land. And this is all within the first five minutes! That's not even mentioning the scene where The Doctor gives K-9 mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. That's not even mentioning the costumes worn by the Skonnons (and particularly Sorak). That's not even mentioning Soldeed...

5K4 - Nightmare of Eden 4

Easily the best thing about this episode, and perhaps the story as a whole, is The Doctor's cold dismissal of Trist as the latter is being led away by security guards for drug smuggling. His quiet "Go away." is just brilliant - steely, yet almost hiding a seething anger that it almost seems as if The Doctor wants Trist gone not because of what the zoologist did, but what The Doctor would do to Trist (and how much he would regret it) if he remained in the room with him.

Tom Baker's stellar performance in that scene is tragically countered by one of his less successful attempts at humour just a couple minutes earlier - an overdubbed comedy reaction to getting beaten up by a gaggle of Mandrels ("Ooh! My arms! My legs! My everything!"). It's a bad, jokey sequence that sticks out like a sore thumb in a story that desperately wanted itself to be taken seriously. It's a weak section of a story that also desperately wanted to be good.

And, for the most part, Nightmare of Eden is a good story. Even the oft-repeated tale of the troublesome production of this story doesn't make it onto screen. There's only a couple of directorial slipups on the part of Alan Bromly, who was just one day from retirement when he was working on this story, but they are minor, and don't detract from the story. Above all, Nightmare of Eden is probably the most successful attempt at hard drama in an era where such an approach was not necessarily frowned upon, but certainly not keenly encouraged.

5K3 - Nightmare of Eden 3

The concept of the CET machine is actually rather fascinating. Trist's device doesn't just capture pictures or samples of the planets he's visited - it takes sections of the actual planets and traps them in a machine that, because of faulty design, one can enter and exit the projections of these planets freely. But where does everything go when the machine is switched off? Or when a different planet is selected on the viewing screen? What has Stotz been doing on that small section of planet for all this time?

Also, the fact that the dimensions of the projections have exit points elsewhere on the Empress is a notion that might have needed more explanation. However, imaginative ideas that aren't explained as much as I'd like are much more fascinating that dull concepts that have far too much time devoted to them. The CET projections are just another little unique quirk that has made this story so enjoyable.

Another unique quirk? The Mandrels. Yes, they do look like Muppets with large clam shells for faces, but they didn't half impress me as a 10-year-old. The disintegration effect of one of the poor creatures turning into Vraxoin in this episode is quite impressive, which counters a less than effective sequence of Mandrels rampaging through a seating section on the Empress. The comedy faces on some of the passengers who are apparently being mauled just make you want to laugh at the entire scene along with the (drugged out) Rigg.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

5K2 - Nightmare of Eden 2

What sets Nightmare of Eden apart from other stories of the era is the total adult nature of the plot and what lies at the heart of it: narcotic drug abuse and trafficking. Still a kid's show at heart, no one is ever seen taking the drug of choice in this story, Vraxoin (although Rigg's drink is spiked by someone surreptitiously dumping a small amount of the powder in). And how could you? Any such action would be instantly imitated by the kids on Monday morning.

Still, the effects of the drug are shown. Secker begins the story in the full throes of the drug, and is apathetic to anything and everything around him, only becoming agitated when his high starts to dissipate. Rigg goes completely off the deep end once his spiked drink kicks in, appearing as drunk as a production assistant in the BBC canteen at about 9:30 on a Friday night. Even someone being drunk and/or stoned on a Doctor Who episode is pushing the mark a bit, and it's to Nightmare of Eden's credit that the production chose to be this daring.

Another good episode. I must admit - it feels good to have the memories of one's youth validated!

5K1 - Nightmare of Eden 1

There is something magical about the Doctor Who stories that you remember from your childhood, no matter how they're looked upon in retrospect. Nightmare of Eden is one of those stories that I remember from my youth as fondly as I remember Star Wars, although, heading into viewing this story, I was worried that my memory would collide with reality just as the Hecate collided with the Empress.

Nightmare of Eden is what Doctor Who was all about in my 10-year-old - space ships, captains, bridges, aliens. Eden was a cornucopia that fed my imagination so much that most of the LEGO space cruisers that I built as a kid were based on what I saw in Nightmare of Eden. And looking at it now, the story hasn't actually aged that badly.

Tom Baker shows a return to earlier form in Episode One, bringing a certain gravitas to the proceedings that hasn't been seen in some time. Whether or not it was Baker's legendary feud with director Alan Bromly that brought a more focused performance out of him, Baker is as good as he's ever been in this. I don't even mind the Mandrel's first appearance at the cliffhanger, although I am watching this immediately after The Creature From The Pit...

Monday, December 21, 2009

5G4 - The Creature From The Pit 4

If the cliffhanger to Episode Three wasn't odd enough (Lady Adrasta is threatened by the monster. Will the evil villainess escape? Or will The Doctor win yet again?), the main villain of the piece, Adrasta, is killed seven minutes into the episode, removing any sort of conflict for the duration of the story (as well as killing off just about the sexiest tyrant the series has ever seen).

Adrasta's death not only removes any conflict (Karela's meek alliance with the ineffectual throng of bandits was never going to go anywhere, especially with Torvin as the bandits' leader), but it also sucks any possible drama out of the last few minutes, leaving The Doctor to perform some pseudoscience solution to the suddenly new problem of a neutron star coming to destroy Chloris.

So, when you add it up - ludicrous characters, ridiculous monster, bizarre plot resolution - this should be one of the worst stories ever made. And yet, The Creature From The Pit seems to succeed despite the massive number of negative aspects working against it simply because, like much of Season 17, this story is a great deal of fun to watch. The Creature From The Pit is bad, but it is no means unwatchable. It probably comes across better when viewed in quick succession, though. I can't imagine Creature being one of only six (later five) stories offered during a particular season of Doctor Who, but it works perfectly fine as a nice romp in the midst of...well, slightly less rompy stories (and I do mean slightly. Stay tuned.).

5G3 - The Creature From The Pit 3

Picking up where the last episode left off in the ludicrous factor, The Doctor attempts to communicate with the giant beast with gobsmacking results. How on Earth was Tom Baker allowed to perform fellatio upon this thing and get away with it? Mary Whitehouse was mortified when it looked as if The Doctor had drowned in The Deadly Assassin (hint, Mary: it's called a "freeze frame"), but she didn't seem to bat an eye at this inter species oral sex.

But this isn't the most troubling aspect of The Creature From The Pit for me. No, it's the fact that The Doctor and Romana, becoming increasingly invincible, are, in effect, armed in this story. Romana is almost always carrying K-9, and K-9 almost always is shooting down guards with his nose laser. At first just a cute, know-it-all computer, now the robot dog has become the universe's bulkiest stun gun - yet another easy fix for The Doctor to go along with his glib tongue to get him out of sticky situations.

And another thing (and although it really does seem like I'm cutting this poor story to shreds, I hope to be more positive in the next write-up), another big beef I have is not with this story, essentially, but with John Nathan-Turner in four years' time after this story aired. I'll delve into more when the time comes, but Geoffrey Bayldon is such an almost perfect match, both physically and vocally, to the late William Hartnell that every time I watch this story (and, to an even greater extent, when I watch Bayldon in an episode of the 1987 series Star Cops), I can't help that, with all due respect to Richard Hurndall, Bayldon should have been the automatic choice to play the First Doctor in The Five Doctors in 1983. Good thing the producers of Doctor Who Unbound at Big Finish thought the same thing.

5G2 - The Creature From The Pit 2

After five minutes of this episode, you begin to notice that there's no videotape sequences at all during this time. It's all on film, including some superb looking shots of The Doctor in the pit - first hanging from the tiniest tendrils of his scarf, then later as he's exploring the cavern by the light of a single match. You can almost be led to believe that The Creature From The Pit is a fantastic looking story, perhaps even the best looking story to date.

Then a giant, green garbage bag comes around the corner in BBC Studio 7 waving what looks to be its semi-flaccid reproductive organ, intent on either devouring or defiling The Doctor, and all hope for this serial is lost. The notion of a giant blob creature really should have been rejected from the very outset, if only for reasons of budget. But the creature is merely a testament to one of the great failings of the Graham Williams era - the inverse ratio between the size of the budget and the size of the imagination.

I'm not going to call the Philip Hinchcliffe era unimaginative, but it's scope was certainly more provincial, and certainly much less fantastical, than the era that succeeded it. However, the money stretched a lot further in the mid Seventies than it did in the later part of the decade. If life was fair, the two eras would have flip flopped, and Williams would have had ample money to bring his giant creatures and alien planets to life, while Hinchcliffe, whose better quality stories thrived on minimalism and could have probably made do with a slightly smaller budget.

But it wasn't to be, and after the unquestionable triumph of City of Death, the jewel of the Graham Williams era, each successive story for the remainder of Season 17 had problems with it, some of them larger than others. Figuratively and literally, the monster from Creature was the biggest of them all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

5G1 - The Creature From The Pit 1

Let's mention the awful bits of The Creature From The Pit and get them out of the way, shall we? Surprisingly, most of what I don't like about Creature only occurs during the opening TARDIS scene. Lalla Ward's hair and dress do not flatter her slim figure at all (it's interesting to note that Ward and the costume designer had a falling out over the costume, and the result of that spat led to Ward having more say about her costumes in future. The next story in production was, of course, City of Death, which, as noted before, features the best Romana costume of them all).

The Doctor is being read a nursery rhyme by K-9, which is just silly without being entertaining or funny. Speaking of K-9, K-9 is speaking differently these days, thanks to John Leeson leaving and David Brierly arriving as the new voice of the robot dog. No disrespect to Brierly's performance, but it's just not K-9. It's like when Barney Rubble was voiced by Daws Butler in place of Mel Blanc for a while, or when Coy and Vance replaced Bo and Luke Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard.

And then, in another in a line of Graham Williams's obsessive explanations for the TARDIS landing on a new planet, Romana discovers a distress beacon that has never been used on the TARDIS before (and, no doubt, never will again) which brings the TARDIS to Chloris, a planet inhabited by stern women and grubby bandits, the latter of who are not at all funny, despite their best efforts.

Okay, so I guess that was actually a lot that I'm not in favour of in this story thus far. One thing that genuinely shines, though? The scenes set outdoors on Chloris as shot at Ealing Film Studios, which rivals some of the material shot at those same studios for Planet of Evil.

5H4 - City of Death 4

The Discontinuity Guide really did put it best when one or all of its three authors said this about City of Death: "Just when you think it can't get any better, John bloody Cleese appears." Cleese, who was busy making the second series of the greatest comedy programme ever created, Fawlty Towers, at the time, probably provides the straightest performance of them all in this story, oddly. A cameo from Cleese would appear so jarring in any other story in any other programme, but this is City of Death - a story which is so comfortable in writing its own rules in the process of shattering others that its brilliance is in its audacity as much as it is in its more corporeal elements.

The basic plot of this story actually bears a resemblance with that other effortless piece of perfection of the Tom Baker era, The Talons of Weng-Chiang. In both stories, a creature from another time/place is stranded on Earth and has to resort to scavenging the local surroundings for treasures (Magnus Greel needed the raw energy of young women, Scaroth needed the funds from stolen artwork) to try and recover a way to leave the planet, most likely destroying Earth in the process. Both stories are also the culmination of all that was great about their respective eras. Talons closed of the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era in fine style, while City of Death is the zenith of the brief time in the slightly more erratic epoch of Graham Williams and Douglas Adams that represented the best of all things Who. Never before or since had humour and drama mixed so well that it is unperceivable if you were watching the funniest comedy or the most dire drama.

City of Death, plain and simple, represents four episodes of the best Doctor Who ever made. It also wraps up in much the same way that it started, with a hint of whimsy and romance, and a scene that has most likely been reenacted by countless Doctor Who fans to the point of cliche. But I don't care. That last scene is so charming, just like the story as a whole, that, one day, when I go to Paris, I will make it a point to stand at the base of the Eiffel Tower, look up, and yell "Bye bye, Duggan!" at the top of my lungs. And it will take the assembled hordes of Genghis Khan to stop me from doing it.

5H3 - City of Death 3

The highlight for this episode, as great as is it is overall, might just be Count Scarlioni's housecoat. Such a luxurious garment almost succeeds in making Julian Glover look like a poor man's Hugh Hefner (although I would posit that Hef is doing a pastiche of Scarlioni, given how suave Glover is in this story).

The housecoat is just one of many little, seemingly inconsequential things about City of Death that make it so enjoyable to watch, beyond the remarkably tightly plotted story that binds the four episodes together. I love how The Doctor figures out Scaroth's plan in the space of a sentence, which would seem like lazy writing in any other story, but because Tom Baker pulls off the explanation with characteristic panache, and because it forces Glover's Scaroth (aka Captain Tencredi in 1505) to realize the cleverness of The Doctor and raise his game to match, The Doctor's quick thinking works brilliantly.

I love the following exchange between Duggan and Romana. "Do you know what I don't understand?" "I expect so". I love how not a boom shadow is in shot during a scene featuring Scaroth and The Doctor, but the entire microphone and boom itself, and nobody noticed for thirty years because we were far too into enjoying the story to be bothered with such trivialities. I love Romana's outfit, the best one she ever wore, and I love how I have no idea how she keeps that hat firmly glued to her head at such a jaunty angle. Most of all, I just love how much fun City of Death is to watch - one of the few times during this Chronic Hysteresis that I've been grinning from ear to ear for pretty much the entire duration of a story.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

5H2 - City of Death 2

The centerpiece of Episode Two is obviously the first meeting between The Doctor, Romana, and Duggan and the Count and Countess Scarlioni. Has there ever been a better scripted scene in Doctor Who? So many lines and passages from this scene have continued to live on in Doctor Who lore, quoted ad infinitum by fans far and wide.

"What a wonderful butler! He's so violent!"

"You're a beautiful woman, probably."

"I don't think he's as stupid as he seems." "My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems."

And so on, and so on. I outlined earlier how invincible The Doctor and Romana had become to the point that the Daleks were no longer considered formidable. What was needed for Doctor Who to become interesting again was an enemy that could match, or even top, our heroes, and, in Julian Glover's Scaroth, we have it. Glover is magnificent in this, playing the ultimate James Bond villain (a couple years before he became a Bond villain) without ever going over the top. In a story where there are so many entertaining and fascinating characters vying for, and receiving, adequate screen time, it is possibly Glover who is the most watchable.

I've spoken in the past about how Episode Three is often the most difficult installment to maintain momentum in a four-part story. But the cliffhanger to Episode Two, with the twist revelation of Scaroth in Florence in 1505, ensures that Episode Three will be an entirely new beast in a story that has already been enthralling to watch.

5H1 - City of Death 1

In order to fully sum up what City of Death is all about, the easiest thing to do is simply misquote some dialogue from the first scene between The Doctor and Romana: "What City of Death has, - it has an ethos, a life, it has a spirit all of its own. Like a wine, it has a bouquet."

City of Death is one of the all time monumental moments in Doctor Who history, and this is evident after watching only the opening scenes of Episode One. Blissful and romantic, these opening scenes are as adult as the series has ever been, because only adults can look at those opening scenes of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, clearly falling in love, dodging Parisian traffic to the strains of Dudley Simpson's most wonderful score ever, and fully understand what a fantastic achievement this story is. Only Doctor Who could cut from an exploding spaceship piloted by a spaghetti-headed monster 400 million years in the past to two Time Lords riding a subway in Paris, 1979, and get away with it.

Parts of this episode may look like they were commissioned by the Paris tourist bureau, but the effort to take Doctor Who overseas for the first is 100% justified by how gorgeous it all looks. The scenery, the acting, the most fantastic script from Douglas Adams (to quote a few more of the tremendous lines from this episode would only do a disservice to the equally brilliant lines that weren't quoted) all add up to 25 of the most enjoyable minutes of Doctor Who I've ever seen.

And we're only at Episode One.

5J4 - Destiny of the Daleks 4

There is so much wrong with Destiny of the Daleks, but it never seems as bad as it should be. The Movellans are interesting enough, if remarkably flawed. Why are their power packs, so vital to their survival, fitted on their belt where any Dickensian child pickpocket could dismantle an entire squadron with a quick flourish? And why do they all look like they're in Eddy Grant's backup band?

A long line of extremely helpful natives (including Westar and Sevrin) continues with Tyssan, who I actually feel very proud of when The Doctor almost looks like he's going to award him a medal after the raid of the Movellan ship is successful. Also, the first and only use in the classic of the then relatively new Steadicam works well, but could have been better utilized.

But the measure of success for this story still hinges on how invincible it's villains appear, or rather how invincible it's heroes are. Destiny of the Daleks is the beginning of perhaps the most smug era in Doctor Who's history. An omnipotent Doctor, his genius Time Lady protege, and an indomitable robot dog who would have probably been so powerful in this story that he had to be confined to the TARDIS lest he dismantle the legend of the Daleks even more. In the rare instances that The Doctor and/or Romana were in threatening situations, why would we even believe they were in danger? As Romana displayed early in Destiny, regeneration is as casual a process to a Time Lord as changing shirts is for a human.

The TARDIS team was at their most powerful at around this time, and, thus, at their most predictable. They are the Harlem Globetrotters to the Daleks/Movellans/(insert weekly alien threat here)'s Washington Generals. The game always seems close, The Doctor and Romana perform a series of tricks that entertain the children, and the Globetrotters end up winning in the end. It all depends, I suppose, how much of these antics you enjoy, as Season 17 was rife with them. Destiny of the Daleks succeeds in only being mildly diverting - probably a 12-point victory by the Globetrotters.

5J3 - Destiny of the Daleks 3

Poor David Gooderson never stood a chance. Michael Wisher, whose dynamic performance created the character of Davros in Genesis of the Daleks, was unavailable to reprise his role as the Daleks' creator in this story, so the production team was left with no other option but recast the role. Gooderson was chosen to play Davros, and he gives a fine performance on it's own. However, Wisher's performance casts a long shadow, and one can't help but think of Wisher's Davros when watching Gooderson. To further hamper Gooderson, he's forced to wear the ill-fitting mask originally created for Wisher in Genesis.

It's the fact that Davros has even returned in this story that signals the end of competent Daleks for the foreseeable future. No longer capable of functioning on their own, the Daleks' sole mission in this story is to find their creator to help give them an edge in their role with a race of robots, the Movellans. It's even heavily implied that the Daleks are now robots themselves. When did this happen? Plot developments in the post-Genesis era have all been retrofitted (by fans, mostly) to tie in with what The Doctor did to change history on behalf of the Time Lords in Genesis of the Daleks. Convenient, that, but at the time, this jarred alarmingly. Robotic Daleks are the exact opposite of what the original Daleks stand for - pure hate. Robots don't hate. They're cold and logical. Daleks have never been logical, which is what made them so frightening. Logical Daleks are never frightening because we know exactly what they're going to do.

What I didn't expect to see, though, was a remarkably cold and callous streak from The Doctor. Whilst holding Davros hostage, the Daleks bring in some prisoners to exterminate until The Doctor gives himself up. Surely The Doctor knows the Daleks well enough that they're not going to bluff, but he plays along with them and watches the Daleks shoot down two prisoners and are an instant away from gunning down prisoner number three before The Doctor finally asks them to stop. So two was acceptable, but three was the line? You could almost hear The Doctor yelling, "This has gone on just long enough!" (you know, after he told the Daleks to "spack off").

Later, The Doctor continues his bloodlust by actually detonating a grenade that was affixed to Davros's chair before two Daleks managed to pry it off. What's more shocking is how casually he detonates the remote control when he's operating his sonic screwdriver. And then when he hurls a Kaled mutant against a rock late in the episode, he adds cruelty to defenceless species to his list of crimes in this episode.

Monday, December 14, 2009

5J2 - Destiny of the Daleks 2

How many times do you need to tell someone to not move when that person wasn't even moving in the first place? Once? Probably. Twice would hammer the point home, to be sure. Three times? That would be pushing it. Four would be overkill.

Well, how about seven? That's how many times the Daleks, after crashing through some for no real reason to take Romana prisoner, shout at the petrified Time Lady to get her to stay still, which is just what she happened to be doing in the first place. You can tell Lalla Ward is doing her best to look as terrified of the Daleks as she possibly can in an unintentional homage to Jacqueline Hill, but it just doesn't come off. And how can it? If the story that's being told doesn't even take it's main villains seriously, then how can the heroes?

To hammer that point home, late in the episode, The Doctor, perched safely at the top of a shaft, famously taunts the Daleks, "If you're supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don't you try climbing after us?". In truth, Baker was just saying what we were all thinking for years. But it's the fact that he did say it which is troubling. We, as viewers, knew that the various monsters that The Doctor met each week were obviously fake, but that was part of the fantasy. Doctor Who was built on its monsters, but now that the programme was no longer taking its monsters seriously, it was no longer taking itself seriously.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

5J1 - Destiny of the Daleks 1

The Douglas Adams era as script editor officially begins with one of the more controversial scenes ever seen in Doctor Who, or simply one of the most frivolous, depending on your point of view. I'm in the camp of the latter approach when it comes to not only this scene, but pretty much anything to do with Season 17 of Doctor Who.

If anything, Adams's addenda to Terry Nation's first Doctor Who scripts in four years at least provide something different from the bog standard Nation approach to Doctor Who: Doctor and companion land on planet, explore, get separated, and the opening episode ends with a "shock" appearance of the Daleks. Little touches like Oolon Colluphid's Origins of the Universe are just something to laugh about along the way. Hitchhiker's Guide and Doctor Who crossover fanfic writers need to not worry and just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The realization of the Movellan spaceship, both in the model sequences and as a full size model built on location, is actually quite impressive, but, in general, like all Nation Dalek episodes, nothing much happens in Episode One, and we're just waiting around for the expected "surprises" to unfold.

Friday, December 11, 2009

5F6 - The Armageddon Factor 6

At last, The Armageddon Factor limps to the finish line, thus closing the Key to Time season. I've actually enjoyed this last story of the season, as well as the whole concept of the Key to Time season, in general. In fact, as this season was my first prolonged exposure to Doctor Who as a young 'un, I was under the general impression that The Doctor was always searching for something specifically, so the notion of a grand story arc such as this didn't seem as jarring to me as it may have to long term viewers at the time.

The lack of scale really hampers the end of this story, though, as well as the lack of scale to the final scene. Whereas The Doctor's first meeting with a Guardian occurred in a strange, mystical world that the White Guardian dragged him to, the climactic meeting with the Black Guardian occurs within the safety and familiarity of The Doctor's TARDIS. It's a shame that this scene couldn't have been set in some a place that offered some sort of danger, but it wasn't. And look at the scene - even though The Doctor is supposedly being threatened by one of the most powerful beings he has ever come into contact with, he is 100% in control. Zero threat, zero danger, zero drama.

And then the giant reset button gets hit when The Doctor scatters the segments, enabling Astra to return to life and rejoin Merak in romantic bliss. Does this then mean that all the other segments were returned to where they were originally found? Is there a necklace hanging around one of the stones in the Nine Travellers? Did Garron finally get back his lump of jethrik? Is there now a shrunken Calufrax creating a black hole somewhere in space?

Whatever the case, the reset was both inevitable, in hindsight, and unavoidable. If the balance of good or evil was reset, as the White Guardian intended, then there wouldn't be much of an entertaining program to watch anymore if there was no evil for The Doctor to stamp out. It all seems, as the last scene would indicate, a season-long explanation as to why The Doctor installs a Randomizer in the TARDIS, thus giving the series a raison d'etre for appearing willy nilly in various places. It also gives Graham Williams the satisfaction that he's justified a reason for The Doctor's travels, as the moral ambiguity of the apparent randomness of his exploits was always something that bugged the producer.

On the whole, The Key To Time season was rather entertaining, and nice way for me, personally, to relive some happy childhood memories.

5F5 - The Armageddon Factor 5

The action for the last two episodes switches to the Shadow planet for the last two episodes, which is a welcome relief if only because it limits the involvement of Merak (and Shapp, too, who has been painted in broad, comic strokes, but has been entertaining, none the less).

There's a quite chilling scene, actually, when The Doctor is communicating with the Shadow and explicitly mentions his task of finding the Key to Time on behalf of the White Guardian. The Doctor has been quite keen on keeping his quest secret (including, at times, to Romana), so to see him mention it here raises the stakes a bit, and again flirts with creating some good, solid drama in a story that has been frantically searching for it.

But then The Doctor, unconvincingly, gets sucked down a hole (apparently, anyway. The effect portraying this is ambiguous, at best) and meets up with Drax. Drax is on the used car salesman end of the Time Lord spectrum, apparently knows The Doctor from the Academy days on Gallifrey, and is another comic relief character intent on diminishing the drama. Drax is also another nail in the coffin that is the mystery of The Doctor and Gallifrey - he's just your average Time Lord who's trying to make a living. Plus, we know the year (well, at least the last two digits) of when The Doctor went to the Academy. The image of a young First Doctor rushing off to class after getting rip roaring drunk at a kegger the night before is now prominently affixed in my brain.

5F4 - The Armageddon Factor 4

Ten points to The Doctor for managing to work in the story title into the dialogue early in Episode Four. He also managed to say the title of The Pirate Planet in Episode Two of that story. One thing I kind of regret not doing is going back to see which stories have had their titles spoken in the dialogue. Ah, well. Next time, perhaps.

Despite The Doctor reducing his dramatic impact upon their first meeting in Episode Three, the Shadow is a creepy creation, aided my an unsettling skull mask and the demonic voice stylings of William Squire. One of my earliest childhood Doctor Who memories was of being put off by the Shadow - one of the few times in my life that Doctor Who has actually scared me.

My favourite part of this episode, though, might be the famous outtake of when Tom Baker reacts to K-9's inability to predict when the Zeon computer will self destruct. It never fails that whenever I watch the actual scene in the episode, I'm drawn to YouTube to find the outtake clip. Which I just did. Seeing a Doctor swear on camera takes some getting used to, I have to admit. It's kind of like seeing Paddington Bear drop F-bombs when things go wrong - do we need to see our childhood heroes behave in such a way? However, when Tom Baker swears, it just seems fitting. I haven't quite figured out why.

Anyway, we're four episodes through this story, and while it's not bad, it has a very drab look to it, and countless (and I do mean countless) bland corridors that everyone keeps getting lost in.

5F3 - The Armageddon Factor 3

There is a shocking variance in tone between the two portions of the scene where the Shadow interrogates The Doctor. The initial part of the scene, where The Doctor is trapped in a cell and zapped with electricity when he gives the Shadow the wrong answer, is intense and exciting. We can see that The Doctor is in distress, so we, the viewers, feel distress. It's one of the rare occasions in the later Tom Baker era where it appears that The Doctor is in genuine danger.

But once the Shadow lets The Doctor out of the cell to open the TARDIS and fetch the five segments of the Key to Time, the drama completely dries up in a sea of Tom Baker's usual bluffs and off-key remarks. Funny, yes. Entertaining, yes. But the Shadow has all of two minutes to appear as an adversary worth worrying about, and any threat that we thought he might have is now gone.

Yet more characters - The Doctor, Romana, and Shapp - try and get Merak to keep prattling on about Astra in this episode. "Us-trah!" seems to be the only thing Merak says from Episode Two onwards. Words to live by, Merak. As Shapp says to you, "Merak, if I were you, I'd try to exercise a little more self control".

5F2 - The Armageddon Factor 2

I find it odd, in a way, that the Marshal (under instructions, of course) goes through so much trouble to destroy K-9, then is overtly friendly and accommodating towards The Doctor in the hopes that he can help Atrios. Surely the Marshal would know that The Doctor might not only need K-9 to help him, but that The Doctor would most assuredly be upset when he found out that the Marshal was the one who destroyed the machine?

The clues towards Astra's eventual fate are laid out fairly early here - a little too early, in my opinion. Early in Episode Two, The Doctor almost reveals that he knows what the sixth segment is well before the story is ready to reveal the surprise. Now we all know what to expect, and we're left with what we think is the main thrust of the plot (the Atrios-Zeos war) to keep our attention until the big payoff at the end of the story. At least there's some great banter between The Doctor and the Marshal to help pass the time.

And what Astra sees in Merak is beyond me. Never before has there been a more limp patsy of a man, wandering about corridors shouting plaintively for Astra. Every scene that Romana has to cut him off or shush him, I keep hoping that she'll just clock him one and end all of our miseries.

5F1 - The Armageddon Factor 1

The very first scene of The Armageddon Factor, that of an overacted soap opera on Atrian TV, would seem to be made entirely tongue-in-cheek, complete with the horrible fringing that is so prevalent in 1970s CSO work. But then, given that so much legitimate CSO work on Doctor Who looks like that, anyway, I'm not so sure how where the line is drawn between knowing pastiche and technical limitations.

I don't mean to pick on small time actors in even smaller parts, but poor John Cannon, who plays the guard entrusted with the task of escorting Princess Astra around before he's shot by his own superior, the Marshal, is just not an actor. He mumbles his lines with zero regard for intensity or passion, and I would love to hear what (an unheard) Marshal was saying to him on the other end of their conversation later in the episode, as Cannon leaves almost no time in between his lines to allow anyone to speak. You can almost tell that director Michael Hayes realized Cannon's limitations, as during a conversation between Astra and the guard, Hayes decides to keep the camera on Astra during the entire scene.

On the other side of the acting scale, though, is the incomparable John Woodvine, who surely must have one of the best voices of any actor working in British TV. Woodvine is note perfect as the Marshal, blustery when he has to be, but also intense during his scenes where he's "meditating". My favourite little scene of his in this episode is his gleeful reaction to the supposed destruction of the TARDIS: "We got it! Destroyed it! Smashed it! Vaporized it! Beautiful!". This is a man in love with war and all that comes with it.

And remember when I said that Mary Tamm looked her absolute best in the red dress in The Stones of Blood? I was entirely wrong. Tamm is utterly divine in her white dress and boots in this story. With respect to all those who came before and after her, no companion has ever been able to combine posh class and intelligence with pin-up girl looks like Tamm.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

5E4 - The Power of Kroll 4

And thus ends what is one of the weakest scripts from Robert Holmes's staggeringly impressive oeuvre (and, thus, just a standard story for a normal Doctor Who writer). The Power of Kroll isn't that bad, nor is it particularly exceptional at anything. At best, it is merely functional - a fifth segment of the Key to Time had to be found and retrieved, and that's exactly what happened over the course of the four episodes.

However, after three prominent roles in a row for Romana, culminating with a pivotal function to the plot of The Androids of Tara, The Doctor's companion here is as useless as any companion has been for some time. Romana is either the damsel in distress or the cabbage on Tom Baker's shoulder, there to ask questions and have the plot explained to her. It's a rare dip in quality for what has been a strong season for female roles, but it was likely enough to prevent Mary Tamm to want to return to the role the following season.

There's also more unintended hilarity in the scene where Ranquin is sucked into the pipeline by a limp tentacle. The actors try their best, but the scenery flops around alarmingly, and the total lack of mood in the lighting of the scene fails to produce any menace. Once again, the effect of late 1970s inflation can be seen quite clearly in Doctor Who...

But the saddest thing about Kroll is that it would be Robert Holmes's last story for several years after being involved with the program fairly steadily since 1969. With this story, though, the unthinkable was achieved: Robert Holmes wrote an average Doctor Who story. Perhaps it was time for Holmes to fade into the sunset, but perhaps he has at least one more classic in him yet...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

5E3 - The Power of Kroll 3

Either vast chunks of Robert Holmes's scripts were being hacked out (presumably most of the humorous scenes), or else Holmes was clearly flagging during the writing of this episode. The total duration for Episode Three is less than 22 minutes long, and the reprise from the previous episode's cliffhanger seems to go on forever.

It's not that this episode, or indeed the entire story, is bad. It's merely becoming the victim of bad circumstances. The model shots of the refinery suffer from being shot from above (and in real time as opposed to the usual slower speed used for such shots), but the water tank that was used for the model was inadequate. The camera operator on location, ill advised, completely masked off the top portion of the location footage to accommodate the model shots of Kroll to be inserted later. The result was a hard, dividing line between the live action shots and the model shot of the giant squid.

Having said that, though, the realization of Kroll, like the CSO in Underworld, is vastly overstated in how poor it is. The matte line does reduce the impact some of the shots used, but the monster is still impressive enough, and Kroll probably has the most realistically moving tentacles ever seen in Doctor Who before or since.

Rohm Dutt's death, though, and especially The Doctor and Romana's reaction to it, further hammer the point home that Time Lords are entirely different to humans when it comes down to it. Rohm Dutt is dragged off by Kroll, and The Doctor and Romana coldly analyze what just happened, and The Doctor even criticizes the gun runner for his foolish actions in getting killed. The scene reminded me of a similar one in Pyramids of Mars when The Doctor discovers that Lawrence Scarman is dead, but than callously brushes Scarman's corpse aside. Sarah is appalled at The Doctor's reaction then, but Romana is completely in agreement here.

This may seem like a minor event, but it serves to point out one of the great failings of the later Tom Baker era. But more on that later...