Saturday, 20 December 2008

A Christmas Invasion (no, not that one!)

It's that time of year, to visit one's near and dear and fully appreciate why they are not 'near' any more! See you in 2009.

The Claws of Axos

A huge spacecraft called Axos buries itself on Earth and broadcasts a proposal- in return for the opportunity to refuel, mankind will be given Axonite, a material that can solve both the energy and food crisis of Earth. But Axonite and the Axons are not what they seem, and they are not acting alone.

The script by Bob Baker and Dave Martin is solid enough but not spectacular, containing little that had not been covered (somewhat more skilfully) in the previous season. However, this is not what sets this story apart. Perhaps more than any other story, The Claws of Axos succeeds or fails depending on the viewer's own particular sense of æsthetics. The production team is called to realise an organic spacecraft and their realisation is certainly imaginative. However, the early 1970s were not famous for tasteful combinations of colours and it is easy to sympathise with the viewer who finds the set design absolutely hideous- yellow is a colour that does not lend itself easily to saturation. In my opinion, although the sets are, indeed, very colourful, I can appreciate the imagination and creativity of them. The main chamber in Axos is reminiscent of a heart ventricle and there are nerve ganglia and ligaments in all the sets. The blobby Axons are mostly effective, although some shots are better than others. Michael Ferguson's direction is up to his usual high standard, not only in showing us the psychedelic environment of Axos, but in effective action sequences. Dudley Simpson's score is, shall we say, idiosyncratic and seems, at times, to be making it up on the spot on a Delaware synthesiser. The science in the story is very dodgy- apparently, all one has to do to escape a giant nuclear explosion is to drive away a few miles and, once the explosion has happened, it is perfectly safe to drive back!

The guest cast is very variable. Paul Grist is a bit flat as Bill Filer, but Donald Hewlett and Tim Piggot-Smith are rather good. There are some more serious character problems, however. Winser is made to be a rather unlikeable figure for no reason whatsoever and we are actually glad when he gets killed (or I was, anyway!) There have been many scientists in Doctor Who who mistrust the Doctor and think him a fool, but they have always had a proper place in the plot. Peter Bathurst's performance as Chinn is perfectly sound, but Bathurst is miscast. The character should have either been played as a young, inexperienced, but overconfident man, or a single-minded blowhard. With Bathurst playing him, I actually felt sorry for Chinn quite a few times! The regulars are on good form with some very nice scenes given to the Master when he is inspecting the Doctor's TARDIS. There is also an unusual and well played turn of events when the Doctor appears to join with the Master and abandon Earth. The Doctor has pretended to join with the villain before, but there is a real personal stake in it this time and we are not sure. This is the first time we have seen the Doctor piloting the TARDIS since he regenerated and the ease in which the Third Doctor does this is obvious.

The Claws of Axos is a real mixed bag, but does contain much that is good. It depends, really on how much you like yellow.

NEXT: Colony in Space

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Mind of Evil

The Mind of Evil is a return to the grittier style of story that was typical of the previous season. The Master is back, planning to start a world war by launching a missile at a global peace conference in London. Meanwhile, he has also developed a machine that removes 'evil' impulses from the minds of criminals, but it turns out that the machine, literally, has a mind of its own.

There are two main threats in this story- the Master's plan to cause global chaos and the Keller Machine. The machine, with the malevolent Mind Parasite inside, is a really frightening concept. Visually, it is a very ordinary prop, but what it can do is horrifying. This is very well realised with spooky music (courtesy of Dudley Simpson) and inventive direction. It is a truly terrifying moment when the machine gains the ability to move. The World Peace Conference is depicted as being mired in distrust and the Master's actions will turn that distrust into hostility. One problem is that these two aspects are not integrated together in the story- it is never made clear why the Keller machine was built (plotwise, it's a sci-fi threat in what is otherwise a straight action thriller). However, they are both realised very effectively, which compensates for this. It is interesting to note the very '70s liberal' attitude to Maoism- the Doctor is friendly with Mao Zedong, who caused the deaths of millions of his people in The Great Leap Forward and then turned to destroying their minds in the Cultural Revolution. Don Houghton puts forward an intelligent script, despite the plot problems.

Timothy Combe again shoots action scenes with filmic flair. The storming of Stangmoor Prison is a fantastically lavish set piece and the use of a full sized missile prop gives the story a very glossy feel. Indeed, the prison is a very effective location, giving the story a very grim feel. The supporting cast is great, with Pik Sen Lim being excellent as Chin Lee and Neil McCarthy being very sympathetic as Barnham. Jon Pertwee strikes a balance between the serious, determined Doctor of season 7 and the more light-hearted one of Terror of the Autons perfectly. Katy Manning as Jo manages to be both sweet and an effective UNIT agent. Delgado again effortlessly makes the Master suave yet twisted. Here he is outfitted like a Mafia boss, riding around in a limousine, chomping huge cigars.

The story does repeat itself (especially when it comes to cliffhangers) and contains some padding- again, this would probably have worked better as a 4-parter. However, it is utterly compelling throughout and well worth a look.

NEXT: The Claws of Axos

Monday, 15 December 2008

Terror of the Autons

The Autons are back for the start of Season 8, but they're not alone, for they are in league with the Master- a Time Lord who is a contemporary of the Doctor's. Not only have the Doctor and UNIT got to fight to stave off the invasion, but the Doctor has to deal with a very personal threat to himself from the rival Time Lord.

It is interesting that the Autons have never been the sole headliner in their own stories. In their first story, they had to share the spotlight with a brand new Doctor and, when Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005, they not only had to do that, but had to be part of the relaunch of the programme for a whole new generation. Here, they headline with the show's first recurring villain. However, to compensate, the scope of the Nestene's control of plastic has been widened. Now, anything made of plastic can be animated. We see a man being smothered by a plastic chair, a 'devil doll' coming to life and killing and plastic daffodils that squirt a plastic that hardens over the nose and mouth, suffocating the victim. The Autons themselves have been redesigned, with horrible featureless faces. The obvious aim of all this was to make children wary of every plastic object around them and each set piece is very effective, being set up merely to shock and succeeding admirably.

The story is impressive visually, with each of the aforementioned set pieces being expertly constructed and shot, with some very impressive stunt work (in one case, very impressive indeed and blatantly a stunt that went wrong but, mercifully, did not result in serious injury). The image of Autons dressed in identical smiley face costumes is very memorable. However, there is a real over reliance on CSO, being used, sometimes arbitrarily, in the place of sets.

Robert Holmes's script is very effective and we see the first real instance of his gift for character. He makes sure that all the characters have personalities- for example, the technician Goodge, whose only dramatic function is to be killed by the Master, is given a few lines bemoaning the contents of his packed lunch. There is no reason why the Master should start his operations at a circus, but the story is all the better for it, providing an interesting backdrop and adding character colour. The script does fail in the dénouement, however, with the Doctor pointing out to the Master that the Nestene will eventually betray him and the Master acting like he had never thought of that.

Roger Delgado is instantly effective as the Master, radiating charm (in every sense of the word) and menace in an immediately captivating performance. Pertwee and Courtney do their usual sterling work, ably supported by Levene. However, this story is also important for the addition of Katy Manning as Jo Grant. Jo is appealingly scatty and almost child-like, a complete contrast to Liz (who has abruptly left prior to this adventure). Her chemistry with Pertwee is instant and she is very appealing in this story.

Terror of the Autons
is markedly different in tone from the previous season. The tone is effectively set in the Doctor's first scene- singing "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire", whereupon there is a bang and some smoke. The tone is lighter and more simplistic than the previous season- but that is by no means a wrong turn in the direction of the programme. Terror of the Autons is great fun throughout and comes highly recommended.

NEXT: The Mind of Evil

Saturday, 13 December 2008


Inferno has a story line. There is a project dedicated to penetrating the Earth's crust in order to tap a new energy source located beneath it. The Doctor notes the dangers that Professor Stahlman, the project director refuses to heed. However, things are already going wrong. A green slime is coming out of the drilling shaft, which infects anyone who touches it, turning them into sub-human monsters. When the Doctor tries to reactivate the TARDIS he is transported into a parallel universe where the drilling is more advanced. A fascistic government seems to rule Britain and familiar faces mask unfamiliar personalities. It is there that the Doctor realises the full extent of the danger that the drilling will unleash. It's a perfectly respectable story line that would be easy to make into a good Doctor Who story. However, Inferno is not a good Doctor Who story. It's an absolutely fantastic one.

The main reason for this is this is that this story probably has the finest guest performances the programme has ever seen. Every single one of the main speaking roles is impeccably performed. Derek Newark makes Sutton likeable and very exciting to watch. Olaf Pooley plays Stahlman as stubborn and obsessed but not actually evil and Sheila Dunn makes a thoroughly reactive character like Petra seem genuine. We can see the impact of the events in the story in the faces of the characters and in the way that they interact, which means that we are with them all the way. The 'evil parallel universe' idea is not a new one, but it has rarely been done better than here. Don Houghton rightly portrays it as an evil society, but not full of naturally evil people. Some are considerably different (Lethbridge-Stewart, Benton) others only different by the circumstances of life (Liz). Again the actors put their all into these roles. The alt-Greg Sutton has a very slightly more formal manner of speaking, even though the character is a maverick. Section Leader Shaw is the same person, but brought up to believe in a separate set of values. And, of course, the Brigade Leader is a chilling perversion of the Brigadier we have grown to love, an excellent performance by Nicholas Courtney.

Houghton's script is very well written, with many lines of memorable dialogue. The blossoming romance between Greg and Petra is beautifully written and played in both universes. And, of course we see the Doctor faced with an apocalyptic situation- and fail. The world is, indeed, destroyed in the alternative reality, which adds to the intensity of the story. The production values are excellent. Douglas Camfield has a great eye for a great shot and the editing and photography are first rate, with very effective use of filters for the apocalyptic scenes for episodes 5 and 6. The use of stock music, rather than a score, creates a spooky ambience that is very powerful. And, of course, there is the ever present sound of the drilling.

Jon Pertwee is absolutely astonishing as the Doctor throughout, the intensity of his performance matching that of the story. While he fails to save the alternate Earth, he does manage to inspire several of its inhabitants to be better people before they die, perhaps the most 'Doctorish' thing he could do.

The Primords are not very effective, truth be told. But I really don't care. This is one of the best Doctor Whos of all time, a fantastic end to the best season since the Hartnell era.

NEXT: Terror of the Autons

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Ambassadors of Death

The Ambassadors of Death is one of the cleverest stories the programme has produced. It is the first depiction of what has become known as 'first contact' between humans and aliens. It has, however, a very clever twist to it, as it realises that first contact, should it ever happen, will have been an event that would have been planned for by more than one party. The way the story does this is inspired. When a recovery capsule is sent to rescue the returning astronauts from a Mars mission, the three figures in space suits are not the crew, but aliens. This immediately recalls The Quatermass Experiment, something that would have been obvious to any older viewer at the time. The aliens are humanoid, but seem to be intensely radioactive, even feeding off radiation and their touch is deadly. However, Quatermass is very cleverly subverted- instead of spreading a deadly something on Earth, the aliens are captured and imprisoned. Whatever is wrong with this situation, it isn't that the aliens want to conquer Earth. It turns out that former astronaut General Carrington has encountered these aliens on Mars and is horrified at the idea of first contact. He engineers a fake first contact scenario, where the aliens send three ambassadors to Earth, but he uses them to instil fear and hatred of the invader.

This is a very interesting premise and is well explored in the story. Most importantly, it is backed up by some excellent characterisation. Carrington is the main antagonist in the story, but is not a real villain. He genuinely believes he is saving the planet with his actions and even the Doctor states that he understands the general's motives and John Abineri puts in a great performance. Reegan, effectively portrayed by William Dysart is depicted as a smarmy but ruthless thug who, nevertheless, is mildly likeable and the script decides not to punish him for his actions at the end. Even stock characters such as Ralph Cornish are well played. Jon Pertwee builds on the new 'diplomatic' aspect of the Doctor's personality very well and Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney continue to impress.

Visually, the story is very impressive. There are gunfights, convoys all excitingly captured on location and on film. The aliens are brilliantly realised. Although we only see their true form for a matter of minutes, the sight of them in space suits is very chilling and Liz's first sight of them is disorienting and terrifying. Michael Ferguson takes full advantage of what was, clearly, a larger budget than usual and puts in great work behind the camera. There are some very memorable scenes- the thugs being told to get in the van with the aliens only for their bodies to be dumped in a gravel pit later, the trip to the alien mother ship with its wonderful design, the raid by one of the aliens where they are shown walking up to the gate backlit by the sun.

There is a major problem with the story. Alone amongst the stories in this season, it is noticeably padded- indeed it could be stated that the cliff-hanger format of Doctor Who works against this particular story and they tend to impede the flow of the narrative. Each story has a major action set piece that, whilst usually effective, are symptoms of the story engineering situations to lengthen the narrative. As in Whitaker's Evil of the Daleks, there are redundant characters- Taltalian, for example, could have been done away with. This tends to complicate the story unnecessarily.

However, the rest of the story is simply too intelligent, too compelling and too well done, production wise, to derail this story and it's well worth a punt.

NEXT: Inferno

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Doctor Who and the Silurians

The Doctor, Liz and UNIT investigate power losses at the Wenley Moor research station, where it found that ancient reptilian humanoids have been awoken from hibernation and intend to reclaim their planet from its human usurpers. The Doctor has to help the humans, but things are not as cut and dried as they usually are…

Spearhead from Space dealt with an alien invasion and the reintroduction of the Doctor and the story whizzed past as a result. Doctor Who and the Silurians presents a more complex tale and it is only at the end that we find out who the ‘bad guys’ really are. The reptiles, unlike any other adversary the Doctor has faced, have a right to live on the Earth and merely defeating an invading force will not be enough. Hulke uses the near three-hour length of this story to expertly examine the issues brought up by this story. The reptiles are not seen clearly until the end of episode 3. We see the fear they instil in those who have encountered them, and the fact that they control a large carnivorous dinosaur. Yet when Quinn speaks to them, they do not threaten him, but merely expect him to help them in exchange for information. The Doctor points out that the dinosaur is called off before it can inflict any real damage. Even when they harm humans, it is only in self-defence. It is Quinn’s imprisonment of the lone Silurian (who was rashly wounded by Major Baker) which sets off the reptiles’ desire to pursue a more aggressive route. The Silurians are clearly not just ‘monsters’.

Characterisation is expertly utilised by Malcolm Hulke in driving this story. Dr Lawrence is adamant that the research station not be closed down, in the face of overwhelming evidence that it should be. He is portrayed as a man desperate to protect his career at all costs, in a masterful performance by Peter Miles. There is also the very interesting relationship between Dr Quinn and Miss Dawson. Miss Dawson clearly holds a torch for Quinn and her reaction to his death is to give an inaccurate account of Quinn’s dealings with the Silurians, which plays a part in deciding the course of action to take. The great Fulton Mackay is great as Quinn, a man who is by no means bad, but lets his ego lead him to his doom. Thomasina Heiner makes for a sympathetic Miss Dawson. Then, there is the welcome fact that the Silurians are given different personalities as well. There is the headstrong young Silurian who wants to have the ‘apes’ exterminated, and the old Silurian leader who is willing to consider peace with the humans. This leads to a power struggle that results in the young Silurian authorising the release of a plague to destroy the humans. These strands are woven expertly to make full use of seven episodes.

Visually, this story was the start of ‘Classic 70s Doctor Who’- colour videotape for the studio, colour 16mm film for location. It is a good time to point out something important here- PAL videotape looks a lot better than NTSC videotape, not just because of its higher resolution, but because of its superior colour bandwidth (Ironically, as the PAL masters are lost, we have to rely on the colours from an NTSC conversion). Even so, colour videotape is less ‘cinematographic’ than black and white videotape, but there is some excellent use of lighting in the cave sets. The location scenes are very exciting, with helicopter shots (and the helicopter used to shoot them!) and scenes of a large scale search party. The scenes where the plague takes London is shot with cinematic slickness and helps make part 6 a very exciting episode. Timothy Combe directs with great energy (despite a couple of gratuitous zooms) throughout. Barry Newbery’s set design is exemplary as usual, with special mention for the aforementioned cave sets and the cyclotron room, with the cyclotron itself being a simple, yet visually interesting design. The Silurians themselves, although a bit wobbly headed, have moving lips and actually look different from each other. The voices, by Peter Halliday, are also very effective. The less said about the dinosaur, the better, but it’s only in a couple of shots, as is the (soon to be ubiquitous) use of CSO.

The main quibble I have does not really relate to the story, but the science. If there is one area of science that the average child knows a lot about, it’s prehistoric life and I could have told you at the age of four that amphibians had not evolved in the Silurian, let alone intelligent reptiles. Still, I don’t think that Doctor Who and the Maastrichtians would have been anything like as effective a title. There are also problems with the nuclear physics and a misunderstanding of protective layers of the atmosphere. The story is, however, good enough to make me forget these inaccuracies. There is also the question of the music. It is mostly fine apart from, unfortunately, the ‘Silurian theme’ for which Carey Blyton, for some reason decided to use a crumhorn, an instrument famously described by Terry Pratchett as having ‘a sound like the ghost of a refried bean’. It sounds bizarre at the best of times and does threaten to undermine the action.

Jon Pertwee is captivating throughout as the Doctor. He is given a problem that is different from any other he has faced- save the humans, but attempt to make peace with the Silurians, and Pertwee performs marvellously with this in mind. Caroline John continues to make Liz an interesting and strong character- when she awakes after being knocked out by the fugitive Silurian, she doesn’t scream, she merely states ‘I saw one.’ Nicholas Courtney presents the Brigadier as a strong, intelligent man of action and his interplay with Pertwee is very interesting. The Doctor and the Brigadier clearly like each other, but they are still a long way from being friends.

This leads me to the ending. The Silurian plan has been thwarted and they remain in hibernation. As we prepare for the expected conclusion, we see the Doctor and Liz going to drive away in Bessie, after the Doctor has been assured the Silurians will be revived slowly, in order to negotiate peace. Then, we see the caves being blown up. The Government cannot take the responsibility of an intelligent race joining the humans on earth, so the Brigadier has been ordered to take drastic action. The Doctor is disgusted, a feeling we share. It is a shocking twist, ending a truly first rate story.

NEXT: The Ambassadors of Death

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Spearhead from Space

When the Doctor returned to our screens, it was, make no mistake, a very drastic reformatting of the programme. For now, the programme was in colour with a brand new star. There was no travelling through time and space- the TARDIS interior was not seen at all in the new season. In fact, the only things anchoring it with the series broadcast six months previously were the police box and the familiar theme tune.

In fact, Spearhead from Space stands out from Doctor Who as a whole. Until the 1996 TV Movie, this was the only story to be made entirely on film. What’s more, the story is shot very cinematically- scenes with the Brigadier facing reporters are shot hand-held and there is a sublime tracking shot when the Brig and Captain Munro are walking down a corridor. Derek Martinus’s accomplished direction makes this one of the most visually striking Doctor Who stories of all time. Robert Holmes’s script has to deal, not only with an alien menace, but with introducing a new version of the main character. The story is very simple and very economically done, due to having to deal with both these requirements in less than 100 minutes, which means that there is hardly any padding in the story at all. The Nestene and the Autons are a bit similar to the Great Intelligence and the Yeti, especially as both seem to like using spheres to contain intelligence. However, the Autons have an iconic look of their own and shop window dummies coming to life is clearly the stuff of nightmares. The very subtle, but extremely effective touch of giving the facsimile Autons slightly glistening faces is inspired. The ending is a bit rushed, but manages to just about work.

However, this is also the debut for Jon Pertwee as the Doctor and he instantly pulls the viewer in. The introduction of the character is far more non verbal than with Patrick Troughton with many of Pertwee’s early scenes being physical in nature, very appropriate for this more action orientated Doctor. Caroline John makes an instant impression as Liz Shaw, probably the most ‘adult’ female companion since Barbara. One minor irritation is that she is constantly called ‘Miss Shaw’ as opposed to ‘Dr. Shaw’ but there is no real sexism in the character- probably because the producers were not consciously trying to deal with it. The Brigadier is back, played excellently by Nicholas Courtney as usual. There is a very interesting dynamic between the Brigadier and Liz in this story- at first, Liz is a sceptic and the Brigadier has to convince her. The supporting cast is sound, in general, with a stand-out performance by Hugh Burden as the facsimile Channing, a very spooky performance.

This is an iconic and exciting story and a great introduction for the new Doctor.

NEXT: Doctor Who and the Silurians