Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Evil of the Daleks

The Doctor and Jamie pursue the stolen TARDIS and end up being transported back a century to the house of Theodore Maxtible, where the scientist Edward Waterfield’s daughter Victoria is being held captive by the Daleks, who plan to use the Doctor in order to spread mayhem throughout history.

The Evil of the Daleks has a fair few things wrong with it, any one of which would be enough to derail a story. I say this at the very start, because, miraculously, this story not only avoids being derailed, but manages to be one of the most moving, evocative and exciting Doctor Who stories of all time. It has everything that a good Doctor Who story should have. It has other things in it as well, but we’ll come to them later.

The story is based in three times and locations: London in 1966, Maxtible’s house in 1866 and Skaro. The main part of the story occurs in 1866, during the Victorian age. There are few of the tropes of Victorian fiction- no hansom cabs, no foggy streets of London, no street urchins etc. However, we are never in doubt that we are in 1866, because the events in the story reflect one important aspect of Victorian thinking- people believed in both science and magic. This was an age when practical science was becoming more than the experimental side of industry and navigation, and it was beginning to join with natural philosophy and specialised hobbies, such as geology. There was real scientific progress, but it had still not shaken off its associations with mysticism. In this story, we have Maxtible and Waterfield’s ‘time mirrors’. Maxtible’s theory (based on the findings of Faraday and others) is utterly ridiculous, but it is the type of theoretical wrong-turn that could have occurred in the Victorian era. Maxtible is driven by the alchemist’s quest to turn base metals into gold, one of the types of mysticism that formed the root of Western chemistry. Victoriana is not just an exotic backdrop- it forms a basis for the story itself.

The Daleks are brilliant here- their voices are very forceful and they are totally ruthless- even when they keep people alive for their own purposes, it is very clear that the prisoners are one wrong word away from extermination. The Dalek Emperor is a brilliant creation- the design is very impressive and the voice, although more expressive than a regular Dalek, has infinite malevolence. Then, there is the Daleks’ quest for the Human Factor- an idea that is very simplistic on paper, but used well, as it is here, it becomes a meditation of the nature of the Daleks themselves. The Daleks are devious enough to actually fool the Doctor for most of the story.

The guest performances are excellent across the board. John Bailey is thoroughly convincing as the troubled Waterfield, a man who, though he is in an unbearably desperate situation, never allows himself to lose his sense of decency and respect for human life. Marius Goring is great as Maxtible, the ‘man of property’ who is consumed by avarice. New regular Deborah Watling makes Victoria instantly appealing. However, the regulars are not to be outdone and Troughton and Hines give their most impressive performances yet. There is an all-too-rare instance of development of the interaction between the Doctor and his companion. The Doctor is more manipulative than he has ever been before and Jamie at first feels betrayed, and then feels disgusted with the Doctor- until the Doctor proves exactly what his priorities were all along.

So what’s wrong with it? Like The Faceless Ones, it shows signs of having been padded out to increase the number of episodes. The part where the Doctor follows clues to lead him to Waterfield is nonsense- the clues are ridiculous and the fact that Perry shows up to tell the Doctor where to meet Waterfield makes the clues redundant in the first place. There are some redundant characters- there is no reason at all for Toby to be in the story- he coshes Jamie and takes him to Terrall, only for Jamie to return to the house. Indeed, it is never made clear what significance Terrall has to the story, if at all. Episode 5, in particular has little in it that is necessary to the story and is not interesting enough to justify its inclusion. There are also problems with the plotting, most tellingly, why are the humanised Daleks not destroyed as soon as the Doctor has finished- indeed, why is the positronic brain holding the Human Factor not destroyed as soon as it is used to discover the Dalek Factor? The dénouement relies on this, which is very problematic. The only existing episode, Episode 2 is excellent and telesnaps indicate that that quality was maintained throughout. Surviving footage of the final battle, however, shows that it was not 100% convincing (it used the Marx toy Daleks which, for some reason, were a different shape to the real ones) but not so much to drag the viewer out of the experience. Derek Martinus directs with style and the design work is exemplary.

A major factor in this story’s success is David Whitaker’s script. Full of wonderful dialogue and characterisation, its strength more than makes up for its many flaws in plotting. Even the redundant characters are well written (and performed) making this a very easy story to listen to.

The story ends, of course, with the ‘final end’ of the Daleks. They would, of course, return, but that barely dulls the power of the story. This story is the first ‘event’ finale in Doctor Who and packs a similar punch as the finales of Doctor Who in the 21st century. This is a wonderful story- flawed in many ways, but having so many wonderful scenes, concepts, characters, images and dialogue that it is easy to forgive its shortcomings.

NEXT: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The Faceless Ones

The Doctor and his companions arrive at Gatwick Airport where it is soon very clear that something is afoot. People are disappearing from flights run by the mysterious Chameleon Tours and a man has been murdered. It transpires that the alien Chameleons are taking humans and transforming themselves into duplicates of them- but to what end?

The Faceless Ones is something of an oddity. It does not concern itself with aliens bent on conquest and destruction, but on aliens who are seeking to save themselves. They have lost their identities and are stealing those of humans. It’s a nice spin on the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers trope, making as much of gaining an identity as losing one. The script has the aliens doing evil things, but never characterises them as evil, merely desperate, meaning that the Doctor has more options open to him than merely defeating them. It has really interesting things to say about identity- the Chameleons are basically moving lumps of flesh without them, and when they are disconnected from the original, they disintegrate.

The story does rely a lot on the visual which is unfortunate, as only the first and third episodes exist. Telesnaps and the soundtrack indicate things which would have looked fantastic on broadcast- the catatonic ‘originals’ kept in storage, the airliner converting into a rocket and then flying into a huge mother ship, the miniaturised humans and, of course, the horrific appearance of the aliens themselves. The end of episode one is still genuinely frightening today- an alien is escorted by its transformed brethren to the sick bay- all we see of it are decayed looking hands and a skull-like head from the back. The Chameleons, whatever their motivation, certainly look like the stuff of nightmares.

The fact that this is such a visual story is also unfortunate, as the surviving episode 3 is easily the ugliest looking episode of 60s Doctor Who I have yet seen, which is truly incredible for anything that has Wanda Ventham in it. Any scene with a conversation involving more than two people has clumsy composition that wastes the screen. The sets and costumes that appear in the episode have very similar shades of grey, as opposed to the dynamic range we are used to. This is not a problem in the first episode, however, and doesn’t appear to be so in the missing episodes from the telesnaps, so I will put this down to rushed camerawork and an unfortunate combination of sets for the episode. Gerry Mill puts in good directorial work elsewhere in the story and would direct episodes of Robin of Sherwood, one of the most beautiful series ever broadcast.

The story does have its share of longueurs and has poor pacing in parts. The reason for the Chameleons losing their identities is ‘a gigantic explosion’ which beats the ‘jumping a time track’ from The Space Museum and the jamming of the fast return switch from The Edge of Destruction for the award for Stupidest Reason for Something Happening in Doctor Who. Also, why do the Chameleons not process Inspector Gascoigne instead of killing him? Why do they draw attention to themselves by naming the airline ‘Chameleon Tours’ and by copying Polly and then giving her a different identity? The ending is also a bit weak and rushed, especially considering the story has blatantly been expanded from a four-parter.

The supporting cast are solid, though not great. The story features an early performance by Pauline Collins and, although she is fine, it is another case of a great future actor appearing in the programme before they have hit their stride. This story also marks the departure of Ben and Polly and unfortunately, they are sidelined for much of the story and don’t get the send-off they deserve. Both Anneke Wills and Michael Craze never failed to put in a good performance and although they were never very characterfully written, they filled in the gaps admirably. Their dynamic was also one of the most interesting ones given to programme regulars. Ben was a working class lad working a working class job, but was clearly very intelligent indeed and we are left to wonder what he would have become had he come from the same background as Polly.

Despite its flaws, the ambition of the story and the intelligence of its concepts makes it worth a look- but make sure you have the telesnaps to hand (available free on the BBC website) when you are listening to it.

NEXT: The Evil of the Daleks

Monday, 27 October 2008

The Macra Terror

The Doctor and his companions arrive on a human colony on a distant planet. The people seem to be happy and want for nothing. Yet a few are treated as lunatics and criminals, because they have seen monsters lurking in the forbidden zones- the Macra. Do the Macra, in fact, exist, and if they do, what is their relationship to the colony.

The Macra Terror has a synopsis that reads like a bad 50s B-movie, yet the story itself is so much more than that. Ian Stuart Black had a knack for taking simple and sometimes clichéd ideas and making them work in new and interesting ways. The colony is presented as a utopia that is really a dystopia. The people are happy in work and play and have access to countless recreations. The starts with full of holiday-camp style ‘stings’ that encourage the colonists to be happy. However, they are fed instructions in their sleep and are told not to question the status quo, and the majority of them do not because life is so comfortable.

However, there is a dark side to this society- the Macra themselves. They have been using the colonists to mine for the gases they need to survive and have been controlling the colony for years. Black astutely sees the colony as being an organism, and the Macra as an infection or parasite. They are clearly intelligent creatures to have accomplished them, yet they are never shown speaking or acting intelligently- their on-screen appearances are limited in number, and always have them acting simply as monsters. They clearly see the humans as merely a means to get their food and nothing more. The fact that they accomplish that by keeping the humans in a state of artificial bliss does not count in their favour- sometimes a person can be destroyed by fulfilling their desires rather than subjugating them, as struggle and conflict have been removed. They are worse than slaves- they are battery hens.

The guest cast is excellent, Peter Jeffrey is fantastic (as he often tends to be) as the Pilot and Terence Lodge is very effective as Medok, a man who has seen the Macra. The surviving clips show good production values. The Macra themselves are, obviously, not 100% convincing, but the sight of them coming out of the darkness with their glowing eyes is very effective. The script, as well as being thoughtful, is lightened with humour- the aforementioned ‘stings’ are great, as is the hilarious scene where Jamie leads an impromptu dance class. There is also the great ‘makeover’ scene where the Doctor is tidied up by a machine and then steps into another one to mess himself up again.

The regulars rise magnificently to the occasion. The fact that Ben is successfully brainwashed makes for a very interesting dynamic between Ben and Jamie and both Michael Craze and Frazer Hines rise to the challenge magnificently. Troughton is simply amazing, depicting the Doctor as being both brilliant and childish and a decidedly anarchic streak: ‘Bad rules were made to be broken’ seems to be a dictum he lives by.

If there is a flaw in the story, it’s that the ending is a bit rushed. However this is a great spin on a monster story, and well worth a spin.

NEXT: The Faceless Ones

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Moonbase

The Doctor and his companions arrive on an isolated base to find that the Cybermen are back. The villainous cyborgs plan to use a human invention to destroy the world, and the only thing that stops them is the discovery of a weakness and exploiting it. Yes, it’s pretty much the same plot as The Tenth Planet, but if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. Ah.

To be fair, The Moonbase has a better script than its predecessor, but that only really means that it is stupid on fewer levels. The Cyber-plan is still unnecessarily complex- why did they go to the trouble of spreading a virus in such a random and ineffective manner? The moon-base has a small complement composed entirely of scientists- would it have not been easier to tunnel in, subdue and convert the personnel directly and then take control of the Gravitron. However they eventually succeed- and then suddenly change their plan to destroy the Earth (the reason for which is never given!) If the Cybermen are a logical race, they must base their behaviour on Logic lecturers who are, by and large, utterly barmy. The script contains some good lines, but a cornucopia of terrible ones.

The guest performances are adequate, but at least there aren’t any egregiously bad ones. Again, Pedler and Davis try to show a multi-racial future, with the Nigerian geologist Ralph Adebayo. Unfortunately, he is dragged away by the Cybermen half-way through the first episode, which is a pity, as Mark Heath seems to give one of the better performances amongst the guest cast. However, characterisation is non-existent and it is only the differing nationalities that give the base personnel any individuality (poor André Maranne again being a professional Frenchman). The regulars put in good work as usual- I love the scenes where Troughton is trying to collect specimens from people while they are still working.

The Cybermen have been given the first of many makeovers and they might, at the time, have looked more impressive than their Tenth Planet forbears. Forty years later, however, I personally think the original Cybermen look better, if only for the fact that they don’t have flares and lace-up boots! More seriously, I don’t think the idea of the Cybermen being humans who have violated their own bodies has ever been visualised better than the original design. The voices, though, are very effective (although still a bit hard to understand). The set design and costuming is fine, but the special effects for the Cyber-ships leave a great deal to be desired, being amongst the worst ever seen in the programme- at least the wires holding up the Dalek ship in The Dalek Invasion of Earth didn’t snap halfway through the shot. Morris Barry directs with panache, except for the laughable scene where the Gravitron is used on the Cybermen.

As said, this is a better story than The Tenth Planet, but it lacks the significance of the earlier story making the grievous flaws in plotting and dialogue all too obvious.

NEXT: The Macra Terror

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Underwater Menace

Let’s get the praiseworthy aspects of the story out of the way. The sets are OK, and some of the guest performances are competent. The regulars are excellent, as usual and, indeed, the scenes which only feature them are very good. And that’s it.

The script by Geoffrey Orme is a mish-mash of sheer story-telling idiocy. Professor Zaroff’s plan is stupid (to drain the oceans into the Earth’s core). Zaroff’s motivation is stupid (he’s mad. Mad, I tell you!) This does not necessarily doom the story to failure. However, the stupidity snowballs: because of the stupidity of the villain’s plan, the supporting characters have to be stupid as well, in order to be taken in by it. The Doctor’s plans to stop Zaroff are foiled by the need to pad out the story (how could anyone fall for that ‘feigning illness’ act in episode 3?) so he has to propose two ridiculous contingency plans- make the Fish People go on strike to starve the Atlanteans and then flood half the country. This is backed by some utterly ludicrous dialogue (‘Help me stand at your side so I may feel ze aura of your goodness!’) making this not so much a script, but a lesson in how not to write one.

As said before, there are competent performances from the guest cast (Colin Jeavons and Noel Johnson) but the majority are anything but. P.G. Stephens and Paul Anil are terrible as Sean and Jacko and there is, of course, Zaroff. Joseph Furst’s performance is terrible, but the blame cannot wholly be apportioned to him. In the script, Zaroff is not so much a character as an anchor point for exclamation marks and it would have taken a director of superlative talent to make Zaroff remotely convincing. Julia Smith, however, has no concept of tone or consistency, which means that a ranting megalomaniac like Zaroff has to share a scene with a pantomime dame like Lolem. Smith is fine when a scene is more visual- the marketplace scene is very well shot. However, she seems to have little aptitude for making performances gel, which is not entirely her fault, considering the script. Dudley Simpson’s score is utterly ridiculous and frequently at odds with what appears on the screen. Then again...

This is, in short, bloody awful. It has some appeal as being ‘so bad, it’s good’, but there really are far better ways of spending your time. There are many laughable Doctor Who stories, but this is one of only a handful that are actually written and produced in a way that is indistinguishable from a spoof of the programme. There is not even a hat for the Doctor to like in it.*

*actually, there is, but it's a great way to end a review.

Next: The Moonbase

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The Highlanders

The TARDIS arrives in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, the British army triumphant over the rebel forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie. They are entangled in the ‘mopping up’ operation by the redcoats, where the brave highlanders must choose between death and slavery. This story is hardly the most historically accurate one the programme has made, but it must be remembered that this was broadcast only two years after Peter Watkins’s ground-breaking Culloden, the definitive television exploration of that event. The Highlanders simply gets on with telling a good story, and succeeds admirably.

There is an undercurrent of brutality in the story- characters are threatened with hanging and drowning and the sense of horror at the fact that defeat is only the beginning. However, there is a great deal of humour in the story, especially where the Doctor is concerned. Here, the Doctor dons all manner of disguises and silly voices- a German doctor (Doktor von Wer, no less!) who is fond of bizarre astrological and holistic remedies, a Redcoat and an aged Scottish crone. In fact, he spends more time pretending to be someone else than he does as himself. However, it is notable that it is his new-found fondness for headgear (‘I would like a hat like that!’) that gets them all into trouble. He also seems to have a new-found violent streak- witness his subduing of Grey, with the great quip ‘I've never seen a silent lawyer before’. Fortunately, these are played for laughs.

The guest characters are very memorable, especially David Garth as the loathsome Solicitor Grey, who refers to the Scottish prisoners as ‘Highland cattle’. Michael Elwyn puts in a funny, but sympathetic performance as the foppish Lt Algernon Ffinch ('...with two "f"s!') a man who illustrates the perils of ‘buying a commission’, but proves to be honourable in the end. I must also mention Dallas Cavell as Captain Trask, who seems to have wandered in from The Smugglers!

Ben and Polly are also on fantastic form- in fact Polly has never been better than here, where she schemes and uses her feminine wiles on the hapless Ffinch. However, this story contributed something very important to the legacy of Doctor Who- Jamie McCrimmon. Surprisingly, he doesn’t take centre stage at any point here, but is still engagingly played by Frazer Hines throughout.

The Highlanders
marks the end of another era in Doctor Who, that of the pure historical. There would be trips to the past after this, but there would always be an alien or monster waiting there. Whatever the motivation behind this decision, it is a real shame- all of them are well worth watching/ listening to, and some rank as among the finest examples of 1960s television. They were also very varied in tone, from the doom-laden Massacre to the farcical Myth Makers. The Highlanders is a very entertaining story to end this era.

Next: The Underwater Menace

Monday, 20 October 2008

The Power of the Daleks

There has probably never been a Doctor Who story with as much riding on it as The Power of the Daleks. A much-loved actor has been drastically replaced and the programme could fail without him. William Hartnell was so integral to the programme’s appeal that many at the time could have been forgiven for predicting the imminent cancellation of the programme. It is clear that it would take a very special story to make the changeover even a qualified success.

David Whitaker was well aware of this when writing the story. He makes Ben very sceptical about whether this strange little man is, indeed, the Doctor and puts questions and comments that must have been in the viewers’ minds at the time of transmission: ‘He doesn’t even act like him!’ This is compounded by the Doctor speaking of himself in the third person. Polly, on the other hand, never doubts who he is, ensuring that the audience doesn’t lose itself in scepticism, too early.

However, it was the brave decision of the production team to replace Hartnell with an actor very unlike him in appearance and mannerism, but also, crucially, one who was as good an actor. This Doctor conducts himself with considerably less decorum than his predecessor, playing tunes on his recorder in answer to questions, acting like a fool in order to get information- I love the scene when the Doctor is trying to unlock a sonic lock by blowing on a dog-whistle- only for a dog to howl in the distance! The specifics may be very different, but the Doctor is trying to do the same thing he has always done. Troughton captures our attention from the start and never lets go.

Of course, there is one other thing that would convince viewers that this was Doctor Who- the Daleks. Here, they too seem to be behaving in an unexpected manner, pretending to be the servants of the Vulcan colonists. However, we know what they really want to do and we know that only one person can save the day- which, of course, he does.

This is the first Dalek story to be written by someone other than Terry Nation, and it really shows. The characters have a great deal more depth and are more believable. Lesterson is not a monomaniac, but merely a talented man out of his depth. Janley is a strong and believable female character who is not merely there to fly the flag for women’s lib, a genuine rarity at the time. In fact, none of the antagonists are really portrayed as evil- even Bragen is mindful of the human cost of his coup. The only evil is, of course, that of the Daleks. The supporting cast is well up to the task, with Robert James deserving special mention for his portrayal of Lesterson. Like the best actors, he knows when to hold back, which makes his playing of Lesterson’s hysteria very convincing.

From the telesnaps, it seems that Christopher Barry again put in some good work in the director’s booth. Episode 1 is influenced slightly by Quatermass and the Pit and the opening of the capsule in the episode is shot in a very similar way. The sets and costuming are excellent and there is the very welcome return of Tristram Carey’s Dalek themes. This is a great debut for Patrick Troughton and the very special story that the programme needed to survive.

NEXT: The Highlanders

Saturday, 18 October 2008

The Tenth Planet

There are very few Doctor Who stories that are as important as The Tenth Planet. It introduced one of the programme’s most enduring adversaries, the Cybermen and it introduced the very concept that enabled the programme to become the longest-running science-fiction show in television history.

The Cybermen are a brilliantly realised race, with excellent costume designs by Sandra Reid and there is the genius touch of having the Cybermen not move their ‘lips’ when they speak with their eerie voices. Derek Martinus manages to come up with some very effective shots and his revelation of the Cybermen at the end of episode one is excellent. We see eerie figures in the snow, who knock out the men outside the base. The camera then focuses on a human hand, which is attached to a grotesque robotic parody of a human body.

Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler try and show a future where racial barriers no longer exist- not only is one of the astronauts in the Zeus IV capsule black, he is the commanding officer. However , the script itself is at best unpolished and at worst, downright terrible. The Cybermen’s plan doesn’t make much sense- if Mondas is the Earth’s twin, why not simply move operations there instead of risking both planets? There is real stupidity in some of the finer plot points. We are asked to believe that it never occurred to Barclay to sabotage the Z-Bomb missile. We are asked to believe that General Cutler would sacrifice millions of lives for the mere possibility of saving his son. Scientific accuracy completely goes out of the window in a story that was co-written by Kit Pedler, who was meant to be the programme’s scientific adviser. I won’t go into his complete ignorance of astrophysics and just point out one thing that demonstrates the lack of care in plotting and scientific accuracy- the radiation chamber has a ventilation shaft that leads to other rooms in the Snowcap base!

There are some truly dreadful performances in episode one and it is a real relief that the two main offenders (Tito and the American Sergeant) are killed by the Cybermen at the end of episode one. Of the remaining cast, only Robert Beatty is really better than adequate which is strange, considering the quality of the cast, such as the wonderful Earl Cameron, who had been touted as the ‘British Sidney Poitier’ since the 1950s. The blame for this must be shared by Derek Martinus- whilst he is excellent visually, he is less successful in directing performances.

It is truly astonishing how little the Doctor contributes to the story and it is a real pity that Hartnell is effectively playing second-fiddle in his own swan song- Ben essentially fulfils the Doctor’s function in this story, and it is Michael Craze who comes out best in this story, playing Ben as being resourceful, intelligent and being the prime motivator of events. However, the focus is on the Doctor again in the last third of the final episode. He is obviously weakened by events and needs to be helped into the TARDIS. There then follows one of the most striking scenes in the history of the programme. It seems that the TARDIS is in as unpredictable a state as the Doctor, with the light flickering and levers on the console moving of their own accord. The weakened Doctor manages to open the doors to let Ben and Polly in, before collapsing. Alarmed, they see the Doctor’s body glow in an unearthly light- and when it fades, there is a stranger lying on the TARDIS floor.

This scene is still hugely effective now, but the impact it must have had on audiences in 1966 must have been staggering. It is one of the iconic movements that make this hugely flawed story a must-see for anyone interested in Doctor Who.

Next: The Power of the Daleks

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Smugglers

The Doctor, with new companions Ben and Polly become entangled in the affairs of smugglers and pirates, when they land in Cornwall in the 17th century. The treasure of Captain Avery is hidden in the town and the villainous Captain Pike is willing to stop at nothing to get it.

Historicals in Doctor Who can have many purposes. They can show how different historical cultures were, they can show how famous events came to pass, they can comically reinterpret history. However, The Smugglers is a story driven by one concept: pirates are great. This is a story that sets out to do nothing more than tell a good story and it achieves this with gusto. As expected, there is a lot of ‘arrr’-ing, cutlass-play and at least one instance of the mainbrace being spliced. The pirates are a very colourful bunch, wonderfully played. Captain Pike is played with great relish by Michael Godfrey as a grimier version of Captain Hook. He commands his crew with an iron fist (sorry!) but knows that the only way to maintain control is to allow the men’s blood-lust to be sated. He is ably supported by George A. Cooper as the very inappropriately named Cherub. The smugglers are represented by the untrustworthy Jacob Kewper (played by David Kelly) and the Squire, as played by Paul Whitsun-Jones, an actor who portrays corpulent authority figures with immense energy, always looking as if he is about to burst a blood vessel.

It is commonly thought that the reason for Hartnell’s departure was ill health. This is strange as in this, his penultimate story, the Doctor takes a very active role and Hartnell throws himself eagerly into the role, and clearly has a ball doing it. The Doctor tricks his way out every deadly situation he ends up in and is clearly having the time of his life. Ben and Polly, though separated from the Doctor, manage to be resourceful and cunning on their own, and Michael Craze and Anneke Wills’s rapport is wonderful.

Surviving footage indicates that this story had excellent production values and effective location filming, but, even from the soundtrack alone, this is a fun story to listen to for all the reasons listed above, most notably the simplest one: pirates are great.

NEXT: The Tenth Planet

Monday, 13 October 2008

The War Machines

The TARDIS lands in London in 1966 near the Post Office Tower. Inside the tower, Doctor and Dodo meet Professor Brett, the creator of WOTAN (Will Operating Thought Analogue) that will connect with other computers around the world in a kind of world-wide web, an international net, if you will. WOTAN is self-aware and it makes a decision that will endanger all humanity. The supercomputer organises the construction of ‘War Machines’- armed automata that can neutralise weapons and kill any who oppose them- and they are poised to strike.

This story illustrates how different the Hartnell era was from what followed more than any other. Today, there are many threats to contemporary Earth in general and London in particular. Today, the Doctor is known to at least one paramilitary organisation and can count on their support. However, this was the first time these tropes were ever seen in the programme and it genuinely seems odd to see the First Doctor blag his way into laboratories, confiding in politicians and being helped by the Army. The script is again by Ian Stuart Black and while it lacks the nuances of The Savages, it is successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do. It is, however, deeply weird to hear the lead character referred to as 'Dr. Who'!

The production values are impressive- there is extensive location filming around London and the design work is sound. Michael Ferguson directs the location scenes with panache, with high shots, what look like (but probably aren’t) crane shots and Dutch angles. He is generally fine with character scenes, but a fair few are fumbled- there are some conversation scenes where he only shoots one participant, or the wrong person and the actor doesn’t convincingly emote when not talking.

Again, the guest cast is merely competent at best and Alan Curtis is a bit rubbish as Major Green. However, the new regulars Anneke Wills and Michael Craze are instantly appealing. In her first scene, Polly gurns when she is called pretty, which is fantastic. There are also the brilliant scenes in the Inferno nightclub- I’m a sucker for 60’s club scenes with people shimmying about. The interplay between Dodo, Ben and Polly is great and feels real. It is a real pity that Dodo is given such short shrift by the story- she is the only companion who doesn’t get to say goodbye to the Doctor. Once her accent stabilised, Jackie Lane put in a good performance and had she had longer she would, no doubt, be better remembered.

The character of the Doctor is slightly different to how it has been presented in the past. Rather than gaining allies piecemeal or inspiring people, he is seen instructing military officers in strategy and is flanked by troops. There is also the only scene where we see the First Doctor losing control- the scene when WOTAN attempts to hypnotise him. Hartnell is easily up to this in a portrayal that is prescient in some ways of Pertwee’s.

This is a very enjoyable story but I get a sense of it being slightly dumbed down from the highs of earlier stories. The writing is not quite as sharp and it also seems to lack freshness which is, to be honest, unfair, as it was the first story of its kind, making it a story of great importance in Doctor Who and ending one of the finest seasons in the programme's history.

NEXT: The Smugglers

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Savages

The Doctor and his companions arrive on planet where the seemingly idyllic city of the Elders has one of the most advanced civilisations in the Universe. Outside the city is the realm of the Savages, people who live in Stone Age conditions. The Doctor is known to the Elders and he is invited to join their number, but the Doctor has questions he wants to answer…

As with Galaxy 4, this story is based on a simple idea. Here, one group of people treat another group as being little more than animals, despite them being the same species. Whereas the message of Galaxy 4 was ‘Beauty is only skin deep’ the message here is ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ the Elders’ utopian state has a terrible cost- Savages are captured and placed in a machine which drains their ‘life essence’ and they are then thrown back into the wilderness to recuperate so that they can he harvested again. This is a story that is clearly about slavery, particularly the brutal slavery of the Atlantic, where human beings were, indeed treated like livestock. Interestingly several of the Elders have dark skin and the Savages are all white, presumably to drive the message home to the average 60s viewer, although it did not go as far as the ground-breaking 1965 BBC play Fable and actually cast black actors.

Worthy as these sentiments are, more is required for a drama to actually connect with the viewer and Ian Stuart Black is more than up to the task. A lesser writer would have had the Doctor and his friends helping the Savages launch an attack on the evil Elders and destroy them. Black, very sensibly, does something different. While the Elders’ treatment of the Savages is utterly reprehensible, they are not presented as evil. Their glorified vampirism is part of their way of life and has been for a long time, just as many ‘respectable businessmen’ in the past made a profit out of the horror of traffic in human flesh, yet genuinely saw nothing wrong with it.

The dénouement of the story is truly masterful. The Doctor is left drained after he has been subjected to the energy transfer process, so it seems like we are back to the storylines of Season One, where the Doctor is rescued by his companions. However, when the Doctor’s essence is transferred to the ruling Elder Jano, he starts to exhibit ‘Doctorish’ mannerisms and , more importantly, the reason for the Doctor’s opposition to the treatment of the Savages. The diabolical device of the adversary has been subverted and been used to fulfil the Doctor’s purpose- to make people better. Therefore, the climax is not a battle but the wrecking of the laboratories that have caused so much suffering to the Savages. Both groups must now build a new world together- a revolution must have a period of reconstruction afterwards.

Guest performances are solid throughout, with special mention going to Frederick Jaeger as Jano. Jaeger’s performance when Jano exhibits some of the Doctor’s mannerisms is excellent and very funny, rather than the dismal impressionism I was expecting. From looking at the telesnaps, the production seems to be of a high standard- good quarry work!

This is Peter Purves’s final story as Steven, and I am very sorry to see him go. Steven was often written similar to the way Ian was, but Purves always made Steven fresh, and when the writers did give him some good material, he attacked it with gusto, be it the comedy of The Gunfighters or the horror of The Daleks’ Masterplan or The Massacre. His decision to become the new leader of both the Elders and Savages is very much in character- he had seen more war and destruction than any other companion before, and had never lost his essential goodness. At first, it seems that the Doctor shows little sadness (although great pride) in Steven’s departure, but his last words of ‘Don’t look back’ to Dodo speak volumes, as does his final pained look.

A very thoughtful story from Ian Stuart Black and a great send-off for one of my favourite companions.

NEXT: The War Machines

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Gunfighters

The Doctor has a toothache and, when the TARDIS lands, he sets off to find a dentist. Unfortunately, they have landed in Tombstone, and the Clantons and the Earps are moving in for their final confrontation at the OK Corral.

Donald Cotton’s first script for the programme was the comedic The Myth Makers which was practically a pastiche of the legend of Troy. The Gunfighters dials back the tomfoolery a notch, with no sitcom characters or excruciating puns, but, strangely enough, manages to be even funnier than Cotton’s last effort. The regulars relish the chance to play with the archetypes of the Western, and special mention must be made of Purves. With his double-taking, inability to swivel a gun and his swaggering along, he is utterly hilarious. Hartnell, of course, is no stranger to comedy and the Doctor’s sheer bewilderment at being handed guns left, right and centre is great. I particularly enjoyed the scene when Steven gives the Doctor a gun when he is incarcerated. Now that her accent has settled to one south of Watford, Jackie Lane is endearing, especially in the scene where she has to hold up Doc Holliday.

The music consists of a song called "The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon" sung by Lynda Baron, which is both appropriate to the setting and very funny in places- when Charlie the barman is killed, Baron starts singing ‘So it’s curtains for Charlie…’

This story was considered a disaster when broadcast and tends to be hated by fans of a certain age, and objectively, it’s hard to see why. It’s well acted, with John Alderson making a fine Wyatt Earp and Anthony Jacobs zestfully bringing Doc Holliday to life. Laurence Payne makes Johnny Ringo genuinely seem like the baddie in a Western and the introduction of the character in the episode named after him makes the shift in tone in the final episode seem natural. Whereas the Clantons seem brutish and callous, the first death in the story is Ringo shooting a man in the back. The sets by Barry Newbery are excellent as usual and there is some very effective direction from Rex Tucker- the climactic gunfight is shot and cut like one from an actual Western, with some quickfire editing and nice tracking shots. True, some of the American accents are a bit dodgy, but I, for one, can easily forgive this. There are a few production goofs, but no more than in any other historical- no-one mentions that some of the backdrops in The Aztecs look fake. The skill of everyone behind the scenes is evident in every department, even the caption writers- the cliffhanger for "A Holiday for the Doctor" has the very funny scene where Steven has to sing, with Dodo accompanying him. The caption appears: ‘NEXT EPISODE: DON’T SHOOT THE PIANIST!’

This story accomplishes everything it sets out to do and is thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Next: The Savages

Monday, 6 October 2008

The Celestial Toymaker

The TARDIS is drawn into the realm of the Celestial Toymaker, an immortal, indestructible being who, in his dominion, is all powerful. He bids the travellers play a series of games to win the right to return to the TARDIS and leave. If they feel, the Doctor will become the Toymaker’s opponent forever and Steven and Dodo will be reduced to dolls without true life or will.

Each episode of this story is based around a physical challenge for Steven and Dodo, where they must compete against the Toymaker’s dolls who are very keen on winning themselves. This brings to mind game shows like The Crystal Maze, but with a very nasty edge. In "The Hall of Dolls", the Queen of Hearts intimates that the dolls were once people themselves and therefore they are fighting for their own existence, as well as being pawns of the Toymaker. This gives what are, basically, children’s games a very sinister edge. Meanwhile the Doctor plays the ‘Trilogic Game’ (a variation of the 'Tower of Hanoi' puzzle) which he must win in exactly 1023 moves.

The guest cast is small, but very effective. Carmen Silvera and Campbell Singer give extraordinary performances as the main dolls, managing to make their characters in each successive episode completely different- with just the audio, it is hard to believe that they are played by the same actors. Peter Stephens is fantastic as Cyril, especially the sinister schoolboy (‘Call me Billy!’). However, it is Michael Gough as the Toymaker who makes this story memorable. He plays the role with a kind of playful detachment that hints at the fact that this character is omnipotent in this world. His performance binds the story together and makes it far more than just a glorified game show.

Hartnell is absent for the middle of this story, so it is again up to the companions to carry the story. Purves is as wonderful as ever and Lane too is fine, although her accent wanders between Cockney and Mancunian! Even though his role is limited, Hartnell’s performance is subtly different. This is no ordinary adversary and the Doctor cannot afford to be flippant with the Toymaker, and the Doctor is portrayed as being more guarded throughout. The writers manage to do a great deal with very little, the sense of unease almost never being underlined by dialogue, only by situation.

From the only episode that exists, it appears that the budget was small, but good use was made of what was there. However, this story is one that relies a lot on imagery- we cannot see the Toymaker picking up the dolls from the dollhouse and them subsequently coming to life (although we do see the disturbing sight of Cyril after he has been defeated- he is now merely a broken doll on the floor). I would also love to have seen the realisation of "The Dancing Floor", as the audio makes it sound fascinating.

This story is a unique experience- fun and disquieting at the same time, with some great performances.

NEXT: The Gunfighters

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Ark

Millions of years in the future, in what is called the 57th segment of time, the TARDIS lands on a vast ship on a voyage from Earth to the planet Refusis II. On board are the last humans and a race called the Monoids who act as servants, whole generations of which are born and die in the 700 year journey. Much has changed in the 57th segment of time and Dodo’s cold starts an epidemic that has far-reaching consequences.

The structure of this four part story is very interesting as it is really a pair of closely linked two-parters. "The Steel Sky" and "The Plague" deal with the deadly effect of Dodo’s cold on the Monoids and humans and, not surprisingly, the Doctor finds a cure and leaves. However, the TARDIS takes them back to the same ship only to find that the Monoids are now the masters- apparently the cure was merely a palliative, and the virus mutated and caused the humans to become weaker willed, allowing the Monoids to take over. They are now orbiting Refusis II, which is not as uninhabited as it appears.

The ‘world-building’ by writer Paul Erickson is very ambitious. We are so far in the future that calendars that measure in centuries no longer have meaning. Millions of Humans and Monoids are kept ‘miniaturised’ on slides and, critically, the split in the story actually shows how this world develops in 700 years. The conclusion is not based on one species defeating and exterminating the other and it is obvious that a good deal of thought has gone into the concepts. Steven wonders if they have been spreading diseases throughout time and space, and his subsequent illness shows that mankind lost their immunity millions of years before the Ark set out.

This is helped by the fact that this is the most visually stunning story since the first one. Michael Imison creates some very interesting both with montage and mise-en-scène (for the lack of a less pretentious term) that really stretch the boundaries of what was possible in a 1960s studio set. The first shot is an unbroken tracking shot that gradually reveals a Monoid walking towards where the TARDIS is materialising. When the Doctor states that they are in a vast space ship, it cuts to a high shot that pulls sharply back. The scenes where the Doctor is talking to the Guardians via monitors is expertly edited. The design work is utterly astonishing, with effective use of model shots and painted backdrops. I must also mention the special effect for the Earth’s destruction, which is not done using pyrotechnics, but by filming an effervescent ball in a tank and is very effective. The statue that is being build by the humans is a constant factor throughout the story. Originally meant to be a human, by the time the TARDIS crew return, it has a Monoid’s head. This is not only a striking image in itself, but effectively tells the story of the intervening 700 years. The Monoids themselves are brought to life reasonably convincingly, with their single eye being realised by having the actors hold a fake eye in their mouth that they can roll. a nice touch is that, in the first two episodes, the Monoids are mutes who communicate by sign language. In the concluding half, they have developed artificial voice boxes, but still gesticulate extensively when they speak.

Unfortunately, the performances of the guest cast are merely adequate, which comes as a bit of a disappointment after the excellent guest performances we have seen in this particular season so far. It is good, however, to see Michael Sheard’s first appearance in Doctor Who, looking very young (he was in his mid-twenties). Also, whilst Imison does come up with some fantastic shots, there is some clumsy editing elsewhere. Scenes virtually crash into each other and a key montage, where the Doctor creates the treatment for the virus could have been cut better.

Hartnell puts in another virtuoso performance, curing a plague, helping to build bridges between races and preventing disasters. Peter Purves is more of stock hero here, but it has been for some time that he has a very good idea of what Steven’s personality was, and he puts in another stellar performance. Jackie Lane’s Dodo is fine here, but her performance is nothing like as good as the other two regulars. Still, she manages not to be annoying, which is the main thing.

Overall, a very rewarding story- and I didn’t even mention that there is a real live elephant in it!

NEXT: The Celestial Toymaker

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Massacre

In seasons 2 and 3, we have seen the historical become more comedic, but the master, John Lucarotti , returns for a final story. Although story editor Donald Tosh rewrote most of the script, many of the qualities that made Marco Polo and The Aztecs so fantastic are again very much evident but unlike those stories, this one depicts an actual historical event. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre was one of the key events of the French Wars of Religion. Henri IV, the Protestant king of Navarre in Spain, married Marguerite de Valois (‘La Reine Margot’) sister of King Charles IX of France. At a time of huge tension between the Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) this was thought to be an attempt to bring peace to France. However, leading Catholics took advantage of the fact that Huguenots would be gathering for the wedding to incite their massacre. Several thousand Protestants were killed in Paris and thousands more throughout the country.

Although this event is not familiar to the majority of people in Britain, it has been dealt with twice on screen. D W Griffith included it as part of his 1916 epic Intolerance and in 1994 it was brought to bloody life in Patrice Chereau’s adaptation of Dumas’s La Reine Margot. I have seen both of these and it is to the credit of The Massacre that its impact was not diminished. The undercurrent of fear and suspicion is excellently brought out- the scene in the tavern with the Huguenots drinking Henry’s health brilliantly portrays their pride and defiance in the midst of their fear. Death dominates this story more than any other so far and the sheer scale of it overwhelms. Marshal Tavannes loathes the Huguenots, but even he is appalled when it turns out that all of them must die.

The Doctor barely appears in this story. After a charming scene where he chats to the apothecary Charles Preslin, he takes no further part in events and does not appear again until episode 4. This means that it is Steven who carries most of the story. With no knowledge of the events, Steven reacts to situations naturally, helping his Huguenot friends even when they believe him to be a traitor. Purves is more than equal to the challenge in the portrayal of a man lost in a situation he doesn’t understand, but still determined to do the right thing. However, while the Doctor is absent, Hartnell is very much present in his portrayal of the sinister Abbot of Amboise. The abbot’s speech patterns are very different to the Doctor’s- slower and more precise, without laughing, going ‘hmmm?’ or even fluffing his lines. This proves that people who think that Hartnell was just playing himself as the Doctor are talking out of their proverbial. The fact that the Abbot is a double of the Doctor is not just a stunt- it results in Steven being mistaken for the servant of the Abbot and makes for a stunning end to episode 3 with the mob clustered round what appears to be the Doctor’s dead body.

The guest cast is one of the finest seen in the programme. Andre Morell (the third and best Quatermass) makes Tavannes utterly ruthless but still very human. Leonard Sachs makes Coligny a truly selfless, yet charismatic character. Barry Justice makes Charles IX very believable as a man who in unready for power and is dominated by his mother. Catherine de Medici (as usual) is blamed for being the mastermind behind the Massacre and Joan Young portrays her as willing to do anything to protect the power of her family.

The research that was made for this story is obviously extensive- for example, although the Abbot of Amboise is a fictional character, the name is obviously taken from the Huguenot attempt to kidnap Charles’s predecessor Francis II at the Chateau de Amboise. The use of history in this story is interesting. Steven tries to intervene in events without knowing the history, but fails to change anything- despite knowing of the plot to assassinate Coligny, he cannot warn the Admiral in time, and Coligny is wounded, as the history books say. Steven’s powerlessness in the face of the Massacre leads to the justly famous scene where he temporarily leaves the Doctor in disgust. This scene is brilliantly acted by Hartnell and Purves, with a beautiful soliloquy from the Doctor and is one of the finest the series has ever had. It is good to see Steven return though, although the introduction of Dodo at the end seems forced.

However, this does not detract from a brilliant quartet of episodes that tells the programme’s most serious and harrowing story ever.

Next: The Ark