Saturday, 29 November 2008

The War Games

The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe find themselves in what appears to be the Western Front in World War I. The truth, however, is more sinister- an alien race is kidnapping human soldiers from wars that have occurred throughout human history prior to the 21st century (actually, it seems to be prior to World War II) to create the ultimate army, an army which will be used to conquer the galaxy.

Patrick Troughton’s tenure as the Doctor comes to an end with this epic 10-part story, second only to The Daleks’ Master Plan in length (yes, yes, Trial of a Time Lord blah, blah). There is just over 4 hours of material here, yet it never becomes boring or repetitive. The story gradually escalates in scale- the first episode feels like it actually takes place on the Western Front, with aliens having infiltrated. When Jamie meets the Redcoat from Culloden, this interpretation is questioned and we find that there are soldiers from throughout human history and mysterious machines that materialise with a sound similar, but not identical to, the TARDIS. We are then taken to the control centre where we see the aliens processing the humans and, indeed, pitting the humans against each other like they are playing a deadly game of Risk (perhaps a hint of Malcolm Hulke's communist leanings seeping through?). There are power struggles in the higher echelons of the aliens’ command structure. We then discover that the similarities of the time machines to the TARDIS are not a coincidence and we find out more about the Doctor than we have ever done before. Terrence Dicks and Malcolm Hulke manage to fill the story with memorable dialogue and good characterisation throughout and expertly weave a narrative that moves from the grittiness of the trenches to the ‘futurama’ of the aliens’ domain. There is a distinct stylistic difference between the two, but it works thematically- the aliens maintain a detachment from the affairs of the humans at all times. In a story of ten parts, there is, obviously, some padding evident, but much less than one would expect. It is interesting to note that there are several Troughton stories (The preceding Space Pirates leaps to mind) which are six parters by design, that are considerably more padded than stories which had extra parts foisted on them.

Visually, the story is a triumph. The Western Front zone (the war zone that is explored the most fully) is excellently realised and could come from a respectable historical drama dealing with the period. The scenes at the alien control point are as differentiated visually as they are thematically and never crosses the line into cheesiness- even the bizarre goggles that are worn do not look ridiculous. David Maloney again directs with consummate style and subtlety with very effective camera work and an unshowy but highly effective use of lighting.

The guest cast is extensive and astonishingly good. James Bree is memorable as the security chief- his diction is almost Dalek like, but seems natural with the character and makes the struggles he has with Edward Brayshaw’s marvellous War Chief very memorable. Philip Madoc is outstanding as the War Lord, a figure who is usually shown speaking calmly with the ghost of a smile on his face, but still projects a horrifying amorality. This makes the depiction of his breakdown in the final episode all the more effective. David Savile and Jane Sherwin are very effective as Lt Carstairs and Lady Jennifer Buckingham. Unlike in The Tomb of the Cybermen, the blatant nepotism (Jane Sherwin was married to Derrick Sherwin) is vindicated. Even minor roles are excellently portrayed- it is not surprising that many were played by future stars. Most notable is Rudolph Walker as the doomed Harper, who puts in a brilliant performance for what amounts to about 5 minutes of screen time.

I have said before that I find the team of the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to be the best line-up of the Troughton era and this story demonstrates this excellently. Frazer Hines displays for the last time that irresistible blend of unschooled resourcefulness and fiery energy that makes Jamie one of the greatest companions of all time and Wendy Padbury’s infectious enthusiasm continues to endear the viewer. We can see that the relationship between the characters has deepened considerably- when the Doctor is about to face a firing squad, he gives Zoe an avuncular kiss on the cheek. When the Doctor is faced with his greatest challenge yet, it is made clear- for the very first time- that his companions are willing to spend their entire lives with him.

This story presents the greatest challenge as an actor that Patrick Troughton ever achieved in the role and, of course, we all know that he is more than up to the task. Half-way through the story we hear of a mysterious and powerful race called the Time Lords. We find out that the War Chief is one of them and, in a wonderful moment, it only takes one glance for the Doctor and the War Chief to recognise each other and it is later revealed that the Doctor too is a Time Lord. There is a scene that consists entirely of exposition that is utterly fantastic, starting with the War Chief saying ‘You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are.’ In this scene, we see the Doctor as we have never seen him before. The Doctor, this incarnation especially, has always been mysterious, always guarded about his origins and past. Now he is with a true peer who knows exactly who he really is. From this pivotal scene onwards, the Doctor is forever changed in our eyes. Troughton’s performance is effortless, yet hugely effective.

The Doctor has to summon the Time Lords as the task of returning tens of thousands of soldiers to their times is beyond him. He tries to escape, but the Time Lords have complete control over the TARDIS- the cliffhanger to episode 9 has the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe running more and more slowly towards the TARDIS as the Time Lords slow down time around them. However, they are eventually brought back to the Doctor’s home planet, where we see the Time Lords for the first time, imposing, forbidding and, by all appearances, well-nigh omnipotent. The Doctor is forced to take leave of Jamie and Zoe in what has to be the most touching departure scene since Ian and Barbara left, which is beautifully played by the three actors. The Doctor is sentenced to exile on earth with a new appearance and we see him continuing to protest as he spirals off into infinity…

Unlike William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton chose to leave the programme and, therefore, is given this thoroughly amazing story as a send off. The faults are very few and far between- the only notable one I can think of is the fact that most of the fight scenes are very poorly done. However, this story has so much more to offer and is excellent as a final Troughton story, one of his best, and would even work well as a final ever Doctor Who adventure. Seven years on the air and 253 episodes is a phenomenally good run by any standards, but, although viewing figures were down…

NEXT: Spearhead from Space

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Space Pirates

Robert Holmes returns with this story about pirates. In space. Anyway, shipments of aragonite have been stolen by these interstellar buccaneers and they have now started attacking space beacons which are made of this precious metal. The opportunistic Milo Clancy seems to be the prime suspect, but who is the real culprit?

There is nothing wrong with taking the tropes of pirate stories and westerns and locating them in outer space. A good case in point is Joss Whedon’s Firefly, one of the greatest works of television sci-fi of all time. The basic storyline of The Space Pirates could have been used in an episode of Firefly, but it would have had the advantage of a well-thought out back story and engaging characters and it is the lack of these that makes The Space Pirates fail. There are hints of Holmes’ future talent for world building and the basic plot is by no means bad. However, there is no need for this story to be four episodes in length, much less six. It takes an agonising 15 minutes before the TARDIS appears in episode one, and it is only at the end of episode two that the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe even meet with any of the supporting characters. There are vast quantities of padding throughout, which are murder to get through some of the time.

This is a pity as the surviving episode and clips show excellent production values with the best model shots yet seen in the series, which would only be surpassed in 1986. The sets and costumes are excellent, as is the music. The supporting cast are generally good, especially Jack May as General Hermack, a hugely under-written role. However there are two actors whose performances are problematic. Dudley Foster might have compensated in his physical performance, but vocally, he seems to lack the presence for Caven, the major villain. I suppose it is refreshing that they didn’t make Caven a literal space pirate, making Dervish walk a space plank and whatnot. Far more seriously, Gordon Gostelow is absolutely terrible as Milo Clancey. He appears to be trying to impersonate American actor Pat Buttram, but bizarrely, seems to lapse into Harold Steptoe sometimes. What with his futile effort to maintain an accent and his lethargic body language, he fails to emote effectively. Clancey is a nicely written character, but jars both visually (he dresses as a prospector from the Wild West) and thematically with the story and is a major distraction. Because he is such a key character, the story suffers as a result.

Needless to say, the regulars again put in good work- Troughton has some great comic moments, such as when he falls on the bag of drawing pins he has about his person (‘I like drawing pins!) and uses marbles to overpower a guard. However, this story has very little in it to attract the viewer and is eminently skippable.

NEXT: The War Games

Monday, 24 November 2008

The Seeds of Death

The Ice Warriors return to Doctor Who in this ambitious 6-parter, attempting to invade Earth at a time when teleportation, or "T-Mat" has replaced all traditional forms of transport, including manned space flight. They plan to use this technology to spread deadly Martian seed pods throughout the world that will drastically reduce the oxygen content of the atmosphere.

As in their debut outing, The Seeds of Death has mankind relying too much on one piece of technology, and that over-reliance being a severe handicap. However, unlike most of the Cybermen stories, this is not simply a rewrite of the earlier story and has the advantage of not having a plot of torturous stupidity. The story’s main asset is the very slick direction by Michael Ferguson. The Ice Warriors’ initial attack is done using POV shots, there are interesting high and low angle shots. There is a conversation scene in episode one which is shot with a very shallow depth of field, so that the speaker is brought into focus and the other person taken out of focus. This slickness is also evident in the model shots- I would hazard a guess that this was, conceptually, the first post-2001: A Space Odyssey Doctor Who story. The episode titles are filmed over an ersatz (but quite effective) version of the title sequence from 2001 and the special effects team have realised that you can get much better effects by moving the camera rather than moving the model. Unfortunately, the seeds and the fungus they spread are realised by using white balloons and foam. (incidentally, I fail to see what was so alien about foam in late 60s Britain- had they never done the washing up?)

In all this slickness, the Ice Warriors themselves can sometimes be a bit lost. There are a few too many scenes where they take ages to shoot someone, or fail to see someone in the periphery of their line of sight. However, the scenes where the lone Ice Warrior is stalking the grounds of Earth Control are very effective. Also effective is the performance of Alan Bennion as Slaar, the Ice Lord. Bennion projects incredible menace in his rasping voice, and his sleeker costume makes him seem more agile.

The supporting cast is good, especially Terry Scully, who is excellent as the frightened Fewsham. Louise Pajo also gives a nicely modulated performance as Gia Kelly and Philip Ray works well as Professor Eldred (although he lingually titubates more than Hartnell ever did!). The regulars are again brilliant- I am convinced, now, that the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are the best team we’ve had since the Hartnell era.

There is inevitable padding out of the script to make it a 6-parter (although nothing like as egregious as the padding in season 5) and it lacks a degree of thematic depth. However, this is hugely enjoyable and recommended.

NEXT: The Space Pirates

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Krotons

The Krotons is a similar type of story to The Dominators- the Doctor helps a race of humanoids against alien aggressors. This time, however, the story succeeds because it is far more intelligently scripted. This is the début story for Doctor who stalwart Robert Holmes, who would go on to become one of the programme's most respected writers.

The story (which has shades of John Christopher's Tripods books) deals with the Gonds, a race who are ruled by the unseen Krotons. The Krotons spoon-feed knowledge to the Gonds very selectively, making sure they do not get too advanced in areas that will enable them to threaten their dominance. In return, the brightest Gond students are sent to become 'companions' of the Krotons. In reality, their mental energy is drained and then they are disintegrated. The script touches on themes such as colonialism (the Gonds being a subject race with the conquerors inhibiting their development and stealing their resources) and religious faith (the Krotons are seen as being almost gods, and they forbid certain areas of study) without beating the viewer over the head with them. The script also contains some fascinating ideas. The Krotons themselves are crystalline beings who cannot really die, but can be 'deactivated' if their structure dissolves. They can, however, recrystallise later. They use mental power to fly their spaceship, the Dynatrope and are on the lookout for two more 'high brains' to enable them to leave. Ironically, their limitation of the Gonds learning has led to none of them being suitable, which makes the arrival of the Doctor and Zoe very interesting for the Krotons. While Holmes's script doesn't have the excellent characterisation he would become famous for later, it is very economical, especially when compared with the bloated 6-parters of the previous season.

David Maloney's direction is understated, but very effective, as are the designs. The sets for the Dynatrope are excellently designed and lit and the Krotons themselves are effective, if a bit cumbersome, with great booming voices (one of which, strangely, sounds either South African or from Northampton!). The story is notorious for the first shot, where the shutter for the Krotons' message delivery system doesn't close properly. This is actually only really noticeable if you're looking for it and doesn't really detract at all.

The guest cast are solid, although the only real standout performance is the excellent Philip Madoc as Eelek. The regulars are given some very good material and do their usual magic. Wendy Padbury is particularly marvellous- only she could pull off the line 'The Doctor's almost as clever as I am' without being annoying. All in all, this is a hugely underrated story and well worth a look.

NEXT: The Seeds of Death

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The Invasion

The Cybermen are second only to the Daleks in the Doctor Who monster popularity stakes. It is, therefore, unfortunate that Cybermen stories have, so far, been vastly inferior in quality to Dalek stories. Dalek stories have been very ambitious, ranging from the post-nuclear-holocaust morality tale of their first story to the epic plot for galactic domination of The Daleks’ Master Plan. Cybermen stories have been basically the same story every time. The one time they tried something different (The Tomb of the Cybermen) they ran out of plot half-way through.

It is, therefore, a genuine pleasure to announce how much I enjoyed The Invasion. There are two reasons for this which are evident from the start. Firstly, it is not a ‘base under siege’ story, of which there were far, far too many in season 5. Earth invasion stories are also common in Doctor Who, but they offer far more opportunity for variation and creativeness. Secondly, the Cyber-plan is not idiotically over-complicated- I was beginning to think that the Cybermen were being led by a Cyber-Heath Robinson (or Rube Goldberg, if you’re American). The plan is simple, to take over the human race by installing control devices in electronic products. This is effective and also ties in well, conceptually with the Cybermen themselves. There is surprisingly little padding on the story, considering its length.

Interestingly, the Cybermen feature less than in any other story- they do not even appear until half-way through. They have changed appearance again, to perhaps their most iconic look. This makeover is the most successful realisation of the Cybermen since their debut and is very effective (apart from the fact that they wear laced boots!) and, thankfully, the cybermats are nowhere to be seen.

With the Cybermen reduced in prominence, the focus is on the human villain, Tobias Vaughan. Kevin Stoney’s utterly astonishing performance would stand out in any season of Doctor Who, but coming just after a time when the adversaries were becoming increasingly similar, the phrase ‘breath of fresh air’ is totally inadequate. Stoney plays Vaughan as being a bit unhinged, but not mad, ruthless but not inhuman. He roars at his subordinates, banging his fist on the table and when they acquiesce, he calmly says ‘Good chap’. Although he wants to dominate the world, he does not want the human race converted into Cybermen, for reasons both selfish and unselfish. Stoney truly gives one of the best guest performances in the programme ever, making me sad all over again about his recent death. There are some good performances from the other guest stars. Peter Halliday is fun as the sadistic but dim Packer and Sally Faulkner is wonderfully sparky as Isobel Faulkner. This is a very location rich production- Douglas Camfield shoots with a filmic dynamism. The use of lighting is great, especially in the dank sewer sets. The set design is also up to scratch and the use of real military aircraft gives this story a very expensive look. The music by Don Harper is very distinctive, very redolent of an ITC serial. There is one rather bad gaffe- when Gregory reports the rescue of Professor Watkins, it abruptly cuts from him in the office telling Vaughan to him (or a badly disguised double) running from Packer in the sewers. This cut seems to suggest that Vaughan has an identical office in the sewer!

The regulars are on great form, with Troughton and Hines getting better with every episode. Troughton’s scenes with Stoney, in particular, positively sparkle. This is also a great story for Zoe- the scene where UNIT use her computations for launching the missile at the Cyber-fleet is great. And, of course, this is the first UNIT story, with Nicholas Courtney effortlessly bringing the Brigadier to life with a great sense of authority and a dry sense of humour.

This is a wonderfully entertaining story, easily better than all the other 60s Cybermen stories combined.

NEXT: The Krotons

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Mind Robber

The Mind Robber is one of the most bizarre Doctor Who stories ever broadcast. The only story it can be compared to is The Celestial Toymaker- both stories involve the TARDIS being drawn into a realm where the controller of that realm has absolute control over its reality. However, The Mind Robber is even more daring and creative than its predecessor, a story that would stand out in any season of Doctor Who, but especially so after the 'monster of the week' stories of the preceding seasons.

The TARDIS travels out of time and space and is drawn into the domain of the 'Land of Fiction' where characters from myth, fairy tale and literature exist. It turns out that the realm is the creation of the Master Brain, a powerful computer that feeds off the imagination of 'The Master', a writer for a boys' magazine (Interestingly, in the same way that Cyril from The Celestial Toymaker is 'not' Billy Bunter' the Master is 'not' Frank Richards!)

This type of storyline, if used at its most basic level, can be a fun runaround where the protagonist interacts with famous fictitious characters and this is indeed, what we get. However, this story has so much more besides. It takes on the question of free will versus determinism in a completely different way from The Space Museum- the Doctor realises that he must be a writer, not a character in this reality, or he will become fiction, and when Jamie and Zoe are fictionalised, they are unable to do more than speak lines which were written for them. It also deals with the process of writing for Doctor Who itself- witness the 'write-off' between the Master and the Doctor. Both are suffused with a subtly different form of the existential horror present in The Celestial Toymaker. Peter Ling's script manages to be very thought provoking without rubbing your face in how profound it is.

Of course, for such an ambitious script to succeed, it would have to work visually. Not only does it do so, this story is stuffed to the brim with memorable images. The white void, the destruction of the TARDIS, the forest of words, Medusa coming to life, Jamie having his face taken away, the creaking toy soldiers, Jamie and Zoe being fictionalised by being trapped in a giant book… David Maloney doesn't put a foot wrong in his realisation of this wacky world in one of the best directorial jobs ever seen on the programme. Even the fight between the Karkus and Zoe, which should have been a rush job, works wonderfully.

The supporting performances are all superb. Bernard Horsfall is excellent as Gulliver, who can only speak in lines given to him by Jonathan Swift. Emrys James is phenomenal as the Master, making him both an affable old buffer and a harsh machine-controlled intelligence. The regulars put in their best performances yet, each one of them being thoroughly compelling throughout.

In an era that is affected by the purging of the BBC archives more than any other, it is a joy that this, Troughton's best story, exists in its entirety. It is so good, so entertaining and so much damn fun that I am not even going to mention the couple of very small niggles I had with it.

NEXT: The Invasion

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Dominators

The Dominators feels very much like a Hartnell story, purely because it doesn’t follow the ‘base-under-siege’ model that cropped up so many times in season 5. This makes for a refreshing change, as does the fact that this is a story that exists in its entirety. The story is simple- the planet Dulkis has had no wars or conflict of any kind for centuries. Dulkis is invaded by the warlike Dominators who find that the Dulcians’ pacifism makes them ripe for exploitation.

The main message of this story is that pacifism can lead to weakness. However, the way in which the story does this is extremely unsubtle. The Dulcians are all portrayed as indolent and lacking in initiative or creative thought. Knowledge is learned by rote, even by adults. The Councillors are depicted as being impotent and silly. This would be acceptable in a drama (if a bit reactionary) but the Dulcians are portrayed by actors who give some of the most listlessly awful performances I have ever seen. The Dominators, on the other hand are far more successfully realised. Ronald Allen and Kenneth Ives put in very good performances, with Allen’s glowering Rago being especially memorable. There is also an interesting dynamic between the two of them. Toba is sadistic, seemingly wanting to kill the Dulcians for sport. Rago does not see any value in killing the harmless. This dynamic does sometimes dissolve into mere bickering, but the fact remains that the Dominators are far more interesting than the Dulcians, who come off as being annoying. This is a big problem, as we are not meant to cheer every time an annoying Dulcian is killed. The script (mercifully truncated from a proposed 6-episode length) clearly has the same contempt for the Dulcians as the Dominators do. If you compare the treatment of pacifism between this and The Daleks, The Dominators comes off as merely pointing and laughing at pacifism, rather than taking any time to ponder its advantages and effectiveness.

Morris Barry does some very good work visually, with lots of quick zooms being made on location. However, as said before, he doesn’t manage to get good performances out of the Dulcians, which seems to suggest he found them as annoying as we do. The set design is very good- I like the contrast between the forbidding Dominator ship and the airy Dulcian locations, but the costumes leave a lot to be desired. The Dominators’ exaggerated shoulder pads are forgivable, but the Dulcians all seem to be clad in a mixture of togas, bathing suits and maternity dresses. The Quarks are very well realised, but come off as being too cute to be really threatening. Also, it’s hard to understand what they are saying.

The regulars work excellently together and Wendy Padbury meshes seamlessly with the established dynamic between Troughton and Hines. The Doctor’s attempts to appear stupid are funny without being over the top. However, this doesn’t stop this story being something very few Doctor Who stories are- run-of-the-mill. It’s not bad as such, but there is no reason to watch it other than for the sake of completeness.

NEXT: The Mind Robber

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Wheel in Space

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. Yes, those are the exact same two sentences I used to start my review of The Moonbase. We have another base-under-siege story, but this time it is written by David Whitaker. Not all of Whitaker’s stories have been successful, but I always considered him to be too good a writer to produce something truly awful. Then I saw this story.

The Cybermen enact yet another dastardly plan. Are you ready? The cybermats infiltrate the Wheel, and then two Cybermen awake on the rocket (called Silver Carrier, geddit?). A star is destroyed, sending meteorites towards the Wheel. The cybermats eat the bernalium used to power the ‘X-ray laser’. The Cybermen stow away in crates of bernalium and are taken on board the Wheel. The Cybermen use the Wheel to guide their fleet to Earth.

Why are the Cybermen able to locate a space station, but not a planet? Why do they not just take the Wheel by force, rather than enacting a ludicrously complicated plan that can only succeed if the laser is sabotaged? I don’t point out every scientific error in the programme, but the ones in this story are just too stupid to ignore, in particular the Cybermen causing a supernova to shower the Wheel with meteorites, which is one of the most jaw-droppingly stupid things the programme has ever done, both scientifically and plotwise. If the Wheel is in the Solar System (as is implied) it will take years for the light from the supernova to reach the station. Any meteorites will take millennia to reach the Wheel, that is, presuming it is in exactly the right position, anyway. It’s like planning to kill someone on Hampstead Heath not by going up to them and stabbing them, or using a sniper, but by blowing up Ibiza the previous week and hoping a piece of it hits the target. Why not just shuttle some large rocks around and shoot them at the station if they want to be sneaky about it?

Apart from the idiocy of the Cyber-plan, the story itself is a demonstration on how not to plot a Doctor Who adventure. The pacing is terrible- episode 1 is basically a set of longueurs stitched together with some arresting images, and no attempt is made to build tension or make character react to plot (or vice versa). In places, the dialogue has a touch of the Whitaker magic, but is mostly awful. The characterisation is sloppy- only Tanya and Leo are believable as people. It consistently insults the viewers’ intelligence time and time again. The only thing that convinced me that Whitaker had anything to do with it was the fact that his bizarre obsession with mercury cropped up again.

On the plus side, it is nice to look at. The sets, costumes and model shots are great and Tristan de Vere Cole sets up some nice shots. The scene of the Cybermen hatching from eggs is memorable and the lost scene showing cybermat spheres infiltrating the Wheel certainly sounds impressive. He fails in directing the actors in some scenes - Kevork Malikyan seems to be doing a crab impression when his character dies- and the Cybermen don’t so much space walk as space mince. However, the performances are far better than the script deserves, with special credit to Anne Ridler, who manages to retain her dignity throughout. The Cybermen have had another makeover, being marginally more effective, visually, than in their previous two stories. Their new voices are, however, rubbish, and there are only two of them for most of the story.

Troughton and Hines work their usual magic and Zoe makes a very memorable début- in fact it is for Wendy Padbury’s performance that this story is worth sitting through at all, making her a fascinatingly sparky character, just the socially functional side of autistic. This is the worst Cyberman story so far which, considering that none have actually been good, is really saying something.

NEXT: The Dominators

Monday, 10 November 2008

Fury From the Deep

Fury from the Deep is yet another ‘base-under-siege’ story and seems to have all the concomitant clichés- an unstable authority figure who mistrusts the Doctor, a subordinate who disagrees etc. The concept is unusual- malignant seaweed, but the realisation makes it something else entirely.

The guest characters are not exactly well drawn- as stated before, a fair few of the stock 'base-under-siege' characters are employed. From the evidence of the surviving footage Roy Spencer is a bit bland as Harris (although vocally he is fine) but Victor Maddern puts his all into the unstable Robson. A refreshing difference is having two strong female characters in the form of June Murphy as Maggie Harris and Margaret John as uber-boss Megan Jones. John Abineri is his usual reliable self as VanLutyens.

However, there are some truly stunning images and scenes most, unfortunately, lost to the ether. One which does survive, thankfully, is the attack of Messrs Oak and Quill, which is - they appear first as a camp comic duo, but then open their mouths to exhale the noxious gas. With their bulging eyes and blackened lips, together with some effective editing, the effect is truly terrifying. There is also the end to episode 3, which has Maggie Harris walking into the sea, a scene which is more like something from a horror movie. The Weed is an unusual, but effective threat that is efficiently realised. A foam machine, a recording of a heartbeat and a few fronds are all that is required to create one of the most unnerving Doctor Who monsters of all time.

Again, this is a case of a 6-parter that would have worked far better as a 4-parter. There is far too much padding in the script, too many arguments about drilling speeds and quotas with writing not sophisticated enough to sustain it. The solution to the threat is telegraphed very obviously half-way through the story and it's amazing that the Doctor doesn't pick up on it.

There is great work from the regulars on display here. Troughton and Hines are again brilliant- there is a touching and funny scene where Jamie believes Victoria to be dead. This is Victoria's final story and Deborah Watling puts in her finest performance. Victoria is given clear reasons for leaving- she is tired of all of the horrors they have to face and this is made evident from the start. Troughton. Uniquely, the travellers do not sneak off after the menace is defeated, but stay on for a party and then decide to stay a couple more days in case Victoria changes her mind about leaving. It's very different from other leaving scenes, but is very well written and played.

Despite its many flaws, the famous scenes are genuinely as effective as they were reputed to be and, while it is not the classic of repute, it well worth a listen.

NEXT: The Wheel in Space

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Web of Fear

After the refreshing break of The Enemy of the World, it’s back to the monster story, with the Yeti returning after a gap of a whole two stories. There is one thing, however, that makes The Web of Fear stand out from the ‘monstrous’ fifth season of Doctor Who- it’s brilliant.

The script is packed with great dialogue and memorable characters and, very importantly, does not feel padded. Again, Haisman and Lincoln know the value of an arresting image- the TARDIS being covered in the web, the pulsating fungus, the contained explosions. The only surviving episode is wonderfully atmospheric, excellently directed by Douglas Camfield and boasting some very effective lighting, which adds a sense of claustrophobia and spookiness. There are moments of real horror- the body of the old man covered in the web is still a great shock today and there is great tension in the scenes where the Doctor is hiding from the Yeti. The body count is huge, with wholesale massacres taking place (these are not done justice by the soundtrack or telesnaps, making the loss of this story all the more tragic). The telesnaps indicate that this quality is maintained throughout. The set design is exemplary and it is not surprising that London Underground thought that the programme had secretly filmed at Covent Garden.

Jack Watling’s performance as the older Professor Travers is completely convincing. The age make-up is basic, but Watling’s performance sells it. Anne Packer is memorable as his take-no-nonsense daughter. There are also some memorable minor characters. Chorley, the journalist, is brilliantly odious, recording the dying screams of a soldier, but not having the courage when faced with the menace itself. There’s the cowardly Welsh driver Evans, who remains likeable (although he is saddled with a few too many ‘boyos’). If there’s one flaw in the story, it’s the character of Julius Silverstein, a disturbingly caricatured Jew (‘You vant to rrrob me!’) that is almost as embarrassing as Toberman in The Tomb of the Cybermen.

Troughton and Hines are brilliant, as ever -I especially enjoyed the interplay between the Doctor and Travers- and Deborah Watling puts in an extra special performance- like in The Evil of the Daleks, she is surrounded by death in a hopeless situation. There is also the appearance of a Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. The Brigadier (as he was to become) is such an integral part of Doctor Who, that it’s easy to ignore the fact that we are led to mistrust him in this story. He appears mysteriously and he could be the traitor who is controlled by the intelligence. Nicholas Courtney brings the character to life instantly- a no-nonsense soldier who is not devoid of humour and intelligence.

The Web of Fear
is, perhaps, the archetypal Doctor Who story. It is a real shame that most of it is lost.

NEXT: Fury From the Deep

Friday, 7 November 2008

The Enemy of the World

The Enemy of the World is a welcome break from the constant monster threats that have occurred in a season that was threatening to become very repetitive- I love Doctor Who monsters as much as the next fan, but I don't want them every week. Instead, we have the story of the struggle against a man who wants to rule the world. However, Salamander, although ambitious and ruthless, is not a megalomaniac (substituting a human monster for an alien one). There is no single grand plan to take over the world, but a piecemeal manoeuvring to achieve that aim. Although Salamander does cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, that is only one small part of his arsenal. He has the love of people because he has done great things for humanity- but the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria know his true nature by the way the people who actually know him react to his presence. Whatever else can be said about this story, this is a far more mature and sophisticated view of an adversary- who, incidentally, looks just like the Doctor.

The main problem in the story is the plot structure- there is a fair bit of padding in the middle episodes and two important plot twists (Salamander's subterranean lair and Giles Kent's real motivation) occur too late in the story and feel rushed. The production values are also inconsistent- episode 1 has a gunfight on a beach and a helicopter, but episode 3 has to have Denes guarded in a corridor. There's some strange editing choices, some of which border on the amateurish.

The supporting cast are superlative- Bill Kerr is excellent as Giles Kent and there's the brilliant character of Griffin the Chef, hilariously brought to life by Reg Lye. Carmen Munroe makes a stock character like Fariah a true personality- it is odd seeing her a) looking gorgeous (she is more familiar to audiences for playing more matriarchal characters) and (b) masking her Guyanese accent with Received Pronunciation.

Jamie and Victoria are written very differently from usual (although Victoria's 'Kaiser Pudding' scene is in character) but Hines and Watling fill in the gaps well. However, this is a tour de force pair of performances by Troughton. The Doctor is put into a situation completely randomly, but is compelled do to the right thing as usual. I love the scene where he realises he has left his recorder behind and has to whistle. As Salamander, Troughton utterly convinces us that it is a different character (although the accent sometimes comes close to parody). As in The Massacre, technical limitations prevent both characters appearing on screen for most of the story, but the end of the story features a memorable showdown between the Doctor and Salamander in the TARDIS.

Not a great story, but one that reminds us how versatile the programme could be.

NEXT: The Web of Fear

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Ice Warriors

‘Computer says no…’

There is a ‘Second Ice Age’ (although there have actually been about six, and we are actually living in one at the moment!) and Britain has been engulfed by the Arctic Ice Cap. The Britannicus Base uses its ‘ioniser’ to help hold it back and refers to the base computer for all actions. Scientist Arden finds a huge body encased in ice and brings it back, believing it to be a prehistoric man. But the reality is more dangerous than they imagine.

The Ice Warriors introduces one of Doctor Who’s most famous adversaries. The titular Martians look fantastic, towering over the humans and speaking with their eerie sibilant rasp. The fact that the movement of their lips do not match the dialogue is deliberate and adds to their alien-ness. The costumes are first rate and actually make each of them look slightly different. Although they are a bit lumbering, they definitely deserve their iconic status.

Apart from the monster threat, a major concern of the script is an over reliance on computers. The base personnel trust their computer completely, as do most of humanity. There are those who reject this and are in exile (maybe self-imposed) from society. They believe that mankind is losing its intuition and problem-solving ability in the face of automation. This techno-fear is a charming relic of the 60s. Nowadays, no-one trusts computers implicitly because they are prone to viruses and breaking down- the vast majority of computers aren’t even used to compute any more! The neo-Luddites (or ‘scavengers’)are portrayed somewhat simplistically. Storr has a distrust of all technology, even considering helping the Ice Warriors purely because they pit themselves against the base. He dies, of course. There are also environmental concerns. Earth's plant life has largely been destroyed to make way for housing, which results in an Ice Age, rather than global warming(!)

The techno-fear and environmentalist aspect forms a background to what is essentially another ‘base under-siege’ story. Rather disappointingly, plot outlines for season 5 have returned to this story type a bit too often and if a story is to be saved, it is through other means. Apart from the instant impact the Ice Warriors themselves have, the main asset of the story is the superlative cast. The base leader whose obstinacy impedes the Doctor is a character who pops up time and time again. In this story, that character (Leader Clent) is played by the extremely talented and underrated Peter Barkworth. He makes this very clichéd type worth watching at all times, and we see Clent as a character making believable decisions according to his personality and situation, rather than a plot-derived construct to push the story along. Peter Sallis puts in a strong performance as Penley, the brilliant scientist who has become a scavenger.

Derek Martinus again directs excellently, getting good performances from the whole cast and making interesting shot choices. The design work is exemplary- the decision to locate Britannicus Base in a listed building is very interesting visually and conceptually intelligent. The base personnel are costumed in simple blacks and whites in the white control room, which makes anyone who does not belong (the TARDIS crew, the Warriors and the scavengers) stick out visually. Troughton is as superlative as always, though the fact that Jamie is incapacitated for so long makes one miss the rapport between Hines and Troughton. There is, however that flirtatious scene with Victoria and Jamie, which is delightfully played and Victoria is cheeky enough to stop her crying becoming irritating.

All in all, well worth a look.

NEXT: The Enemy of the World

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Abominable Snowmen

The Abominable Snowmen, like The Tomb of the Cybermen, takes an old legend and breathes new life into it. Unlike The Tomb of the Cybermen, it does not strangle it halfway through. This is mainly due to the fact that Haisman and Lincoln are far better writers than Pedler and Davis and realised that they were writing for people with attention spans longer than a few seconds and that they come up with some truly intriguing concepts.

This is the first time that Doctor Who presented a super-intelligent incorporeal entity that wished to be incarnated, and the fact that it was contacted when a Tibetan lama was meditating is inspired. The use of robot Yeti is the icing on the cake. This is backed up by some memorable imagery- the pyramid of spheres, the manoeuvring of Yeti figures over the map. The surviving episode shows that the monastery set is very well designed and lit and there is good location filming in Snowdonia

The main fault with the story is one common to the era- it is too long. A four-part Abominable Snowmen would have been a true Troughton classic, but the padding is very obvious. It takes a whole episode for the sphere to reach the deactivated Yeti, and the rest of the episode has nothing in it that couldn’t have been cut out or placed elsewhere. This is another story where white actors play Asian ones but, despite the taped back eyes and a ridiculous moustache on Khrisong, this is done sensitively. There are some bizarre hats on show, but it appears that the Doctor has lost his fetish for headgear.

The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Wolfe Morris as Padmasambhava. The character is at first realised through voice alone- one voice, that of Padmasambhava, is benevolent and calm. The other, that of the Great Intelligence is harsh and rasping. As the story goes on, the fact that Padmasambhava is a man aged beyond the limits of humanity and is hopelessly awaiting a death that may never come becomes very obvious. This is a very thoughtful way of treating alien possession, and is put across brilliantly. Mention must also be made of Jack Watling’s excellent portrayal of Travers, a character that could easily have slipped into the staid eccentric explorer cliché.

The regulars are also on excellent form. Troughton and Hines’s fantastic rapport makes any scenes between them sparkle and Victoria is a lively enthusiastic presence, staying just the right side of being annoying. The direction, ‘cinematography’ and design create a great atmosphere. Although this is not the great classic of repute, it is highly enjoyable.

NEXT: The Ice Warriors

Saturday, 1 November 2008

The Tomb of the Cybermen

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria land on the planet Telos, where a group of archaeologists are excavating to find the lost tombs of the Cybermen. However, some of the party have their own motives for finding the tomb and when it is found, the Cybermen are not extinct as they thought.

The obvious inspiration for this story is The Mummy. The idea of a ruthless conquering race being archaeological curiosities, in the same way as the Romans and the Vikings adds a real sense of scale to the universe. The story is excellent visually- the sets and miniatures for the tombs are brilliantly designed and constructed and the location work is very impressive. Morris Barry knows how to construct a scene visually and how to use lighting to create mood. This makes the first two episodes very gripping as the tombs spring their deadly traps. The awakening of the Cybermen is brilliantly shot and scored and the cliffhanger for episode 2 is rightly iconic. Then the story crashes and burns. Big time

There were signs. Kaftan and Hopper are atrociously acted. Shirley Cooklin either smirks stupidly or blankly intones her dialogue. George Roubicek has the least expressive face and body language of any actor I have ever seen. To make up for this, he constantly moves his head from side to side when speaking. Characterisation is non-existent, but there are some good performances from some of the other actors. There is no good reason for Kaftan sealing the hatch to the tombs. However, this only hints at the rubbishness to come.

From the start of episode 3, the writers seemed to think the story didn't need a plot any more- it was enough to construct a series of set-pieces. This could work if the set-pieces weren't all idiotic- practically all of them have their own plot-hole. Why are the Cybermen unable to open the exit to their own tomb? Why are Kaftan and Klieg locked in the weapons room- with weapons? How does Klieg believe he can threaten the Cybermen with one gun? Why is the Cyberman Controller shut in the revitalisation chamber, which is then turned on? Why does the Doctor think that ropes can hold it shut? Why not just jump over the cybermats? I could go on.

The fact that the story literally 'loses the plot' damages the story irreparably. The Doctor's purpose is never made clear, which means he lets the archaeologists into the tomb, solves the logic puzzles to allow access to the Cybermen. Is this part of a grand scheme? No, because in the end, he just seals them up again. All the Doctor has done is allowed people to die who wouldn't have, had he not interfered. The Cybermen don't actually do much- they wander around a big room, replace Toberman's arm and, for some reason, quack a lot. None of the Cybermen leave the building- in fact only the Controller even leaves the cryonic chamber. This limits the story visually as well as dramatically.

There are two supporting characters that I wish to comment on. George Pastell's performance as Klieg is fascinating. Never before has such a charismatic screen presence been wedded to such an awful performance. Of course, it doesn't help that his dialogue is atrocious and the character is ludicrous. Pastell remains, however, interesting to watch. Then there is Toberman. If any aspect of this story has dated badly, it's the portrayal of a black man as a monosyllabic brutish slave. This, for once, is not the fault of the script (Davis and Pedler, for all their faults, went out of their way to portray black characters positively in their earlier scripts) and blame, unfortunately, must be apportioned to Morris Barry. It's interesting that Roy Stewart would play a similar sort of character in I, Claudius, nearly 10 years later but, with more subtle and skilful direction, the I, Claudius character is not offensive at all.

Troughton and Hines are on excellent form, Troughton still making the Doctor compelling, in spite of the fact that the script has no idea what to do with him. Watling is fine and her and Troughton share an excellent scene discussing the nature of bereavement that is better than the rest of the story combined.

The Tomb of the Cybermen
has long been a favourite with those who saw it when they were children. Unfortunately, when viewed by an adult (as I suppose I am) it comes off as being a story that starts with great promise, but is utterly wrecked by a script that nose-dives in quality half-way through and then gets exponentially more brainless by the minute.

NEXT: The Abominable Snowmen