Monday, 29 September 2008

The Daleks' Master Plan

Terry Nation had many faults as a writer, many of which were embarrassingly displayed in The Chase. At first glance, The Daleks’ Master Plan seems to have many of the same qualities. Both stories feature the Doctor being pursued by the Daleks throughout time and space. Both are filled with B-movie threats- in this story, we have invisible monsters, man-eating plants and prisoners taking over a ship, amongst other things. However, this story is so superior to The Chase that it makes one wonder how it could have come from the same mind. If any two stories prove ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’ it’s these two.

The first thing that strikes the viewer about this story is its length. This is a colossal 12-episode epic, nearly 5 hours of television. This obviously begs the question of whether or not the story is padded or not and indeed, I could easily reduce this story to a 3-parter: The taranium is an obvious McGuffin, with most of the story being centred round it. If the Doctor doesn’t steal the taranium, there is no need for episodes 2-10. However, this story is well named, as this story has a sense of scale that dwarfs the stories that come before it. The Doctor is, for the first time, battling a threat to the whole universe, with the fates of whole galaxies at stake. Such a story is epic in nature and demands an epic length. The threats confronted transcend B-movie cliché- the Varga plants make sense plotwise and are a genuinely horrific threat and the Visians are also brought to life very effectively through very simple special visual and audio effects. The detour to Desperus might seem a bit pointless, but it ends in the most shocking scene in Doctor Who yet, the death of Katarina. This scene is excellently scripted, acted and directed and the story is all the better for it. The detour to ancient Egypt is very well acted and directed and contains the very welcome return of Peter Butterworth as the Meddling Monk. Unlike in The Chase, although the story takes us to many locations in time and space, it is rooted in one place- the nightmarish planet of Kembel.

Apart from the TARDIS crew and the Daleks, the other main player in the story is Mavic Chen, brought to life in a powerhouse performance by Kevin Stoney. Chen is a man who is already the most powerful human being ever and yet wants more. He is depicted as a man of wit, intelligence and charisma, but with an egotism that increases as the story goes on and eventually drives him to madness, believing himself to be a god who rules the Daleks. The only issue I have is with Chen’s make-up. He is meant to be ‘part-Oriental’, which the make-up team interpreted by darkening Stoney’s skin and taping back his eyes. This makes him look like a grotesque, caricatured ‘Chinaman’ which is unfortunate, as Chen’s ethnicity is not mentioned at all in the story, and he is not a Fu Manchu takeoff.

The guest cast is, perhaps, the strongest the programme has had since Marco Polo, and I cannot think of a single poor performance. Nicholas Courtney is memorable as Bret Vyon and it is easy to see why he returned to the programme a couple of times. Even a minor character like Karlton is well brought to life by Maurice Browning It is clear that good deal of thought has gone into characterisation and, importantly, character interplay. For example, Steven is a character from our future, but Sara Kingdom’s past, so that something that Steven would consider contemporary would seem futuristic to us and antediluvian to Sara. This is something which is actually a factor in the way these two characters interact.

The Daleks are totally rehabilitated from the fiasco of The Chase. Here they are scheming, ruthless and efficient. Their voices are brilliant here, after the limp vocal stylings of the previous two stories. As in The Chase Nation throws other monsters against them, but here the Daleks triumph. Their plan is a truly diabolical one and they would not come up with a plan as masterful until 2008.

Hartnell puts in one of his finest performances in this story. The Doctor rages against those who hurt his friends and takes no nonsense from the Daleks, dictating terms to them even when he is at a disadvantage. He also joyfully wraps the Monk up in bandages and whacks Visians with his stick. The length of the story is ably matched by Hartnell’s range. Purves continues to work wonders as Steven- it is mainly due to his performance that Katarina’s death works as well as it does. Adrienne Hill, it must be said, is no more than adequate as Katarina and it is, perhaps, good that the character died before she got too annoying. Jean Marsh as Sara puts in an excellent performance making the character both as tough as nails without making her unsympathetic.

Even though only a quarter of the episodes exist, it is clear that this is where Douglas Camfield got his reputation as one of the programme’s finest directors. As said before, the performances from the guest cast are strong across the board, and Camfield’s choice of camera angles and movement are sublime as is his supervision of editing- there is a great cut from an image of the sun in sky to a glint on the dome of a Dalek.

The Daleks’ Master Plan
was the first story to have an episode broadcast on Christmas Day, "The Feast of Steven" and this episode takes a break from the Daleks to give us some light relief for the festive season. The first setting is a charming skit where the doctor is arrested by a policeman after being seen coming out of the TARDIS and the second is set in Hollywood in the Mack Sennet era. It is less successful, but still worthwhile. Then there is the famous scene where the Doctor toasts the viewer at home, which I found to be very well done- as the Doctor says, the TARDIS crew rarely get a chance to celebrate. The inclusion of this interlude is not as random as it looks, as it occurs in a natural break in the story and, although it is business as usual in the next episode, there is still a hilarious interlude at the Oval cricket ground to ease the transition back.

I must also make special mention of the last episode. The previous Dalek stories were resolved with a battle or an explosion. Here we are treated to something truly spectacular. The Time Destructor is turned on and it causes the surface of the Kembel to age. Unfortunately, it has the same effect on Sara and the Doctor and Sara ages to death and decays. Steven manages to turn the machine into reverse, rejuvenating the Doctor and eventually destroying the pursuing Daleks by regressing them into embryos. Kembel is reduced to a desert planet by the time the machine is exhausted. In the midst of this, Steven and the Doctor are left alone to ponder the cost of their victory. It is a truly epic ending to an epic story.

Next: The Massacre

Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Myth Makers

Doctor Who travels to the time of the Trojan War in Donald Cotton’s first story for the programme. It is usually labelled as being a historical, yet is based on a myth. The events, if they did happen, were probably very different to what was recorded in the Iliad by Homer (who himself may not have existed!) However, this is neither a faithful depiction of the myth, nor an attempt to portray what may have actually happened. The tone is set from the start. Achilles and Hector are having their legendary duel to the death, but it is clear that this is not the Achilles of legend and that it is, in fact, Hector who is the greater warrior. It is only the materialisation of the TARDIS that enables Achilles to kill Hector. The fight is set to a trombone-led score, an instrument that is inherently funny (I have the greatest respect for trombonists, by the way).

Some of the characters are purely comedic. Paris is played as being a cowardly upper-class twit, a combination of Percy from Blackadder and Bertie Wooster. Menelaus is Agamemnon’s thick brother who needs the concept of the Trojan Horse explained to him several times. The supporting cast put in fantastic comedic performances. Barrie Ingham is hilarious as Paris and Max Adrian is great as the world-weary Priam. Odysseus is portrayed as being far more fierce than is usual, although it is clear that he is still, by far, the cleverest of the Greeks.

The script is out and out comedy, with some lines worthy of Up Pompeii!:- Cassandra: ‘Woe to the House of Priam! Woe to the Trojans! Paris: ‘I think it’s a bit late to say “Whoah” to the horse!’ However, the last episode depicts the sacking of Troy which is, thankfully, not treated comedically, although it does clash a bit with the humour of the rest of the story.

Hartnell is his usual brilliant self in this story, accepting his initial role as Zeus on earth, and then trying to think up any plan of entry that doesn’t involve a large wooden horse. Purves continues to impress as the wry Steven- there is some great interplay between Steven and Vicki. This is Vicki’s last story and I am sorry to see her go. Maureen O’Brien brought a real sense of innocent delight to the role and was a joy to watch. Her romance with Troilus is well done- for once, both characters fancy one another from the start, rather than the gradual falling in love that is usual.

This is the first instance of the Doctor actually being the direct cause of a historical event (although it’s more writing than re-writing history) and I love the fact that the Doctor refuses to believe in the historicity of the horse and then actually inspiring its creation. It is touches such as this that stop the first three episodes being merely pastiches. We are told that the Trojans worshipped the ‘Great Horse’ which is why they fell for the Trojan Horse.

This is a hilarious and sometimes poignant look at one of the most famous stories in history.

Next: The Daleks' Master Plan

Thursday, 25 September 2008

"Mission to the Unknown"

Space Security Agent Marc Cory has discovered that the Daleks are planning the conquest of the Milky Way with the help of other hostile extra-galactic powers. They are on the nightmarish planet of Kembel where they have arranged a conference. Meanwhile, Cory and Gordon Lowery must send a message warning of the attack to the Solar System before they are killed by the Daleks or the horrors they have brought with them.

This is the hors d'œuvre to the epic that is to come, and is extremely satisfying. The absence of the TARDIS crew means that we do not have their reassuring presence and the outcome is by no means certain. Indeed, the sheer urgency of the episode wipes all memories of the clumsy farce of The Chase from the mind. The Daleks’ sense of menace is very much restored the stakes are much higher- it is no longer the fate of mere planets that are in question, but galaxies. Edward de Souza plays Marc Cory very well and Jeremy Young puts real humanity into Gordon Lowery, and there is a fascinating array of aliens at the conference. The Varga plants are truly terrifying monsters and the appetite is piqued for the main course…

Next: The Myth Makers

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Galaxy 4

Galaxy 4 starts a long line of episodes that, sadly, must be enjoyed by sound alone. In this adventure, the Doctor and his companions arrive on a desolate planet with two crashed spaceships on it. One belongs to the Drahvins, beautiful humanoid women. The other belongs to the Rills, whom the Drahvins describe as ‘disgusting’. However, beauty turns out to be only skin deep….

The story is a very simple one, and there are no prizes for guessing the outcome. There is only one real character in the story, that of Maaga, leader of the Drahvins and a limited number of locations. Yet this story works, and works very well. Stephanie Bidmead’s performance as Maaga is masterful. She commands her troops mercilessly, but introduces a hint of perverted maternalism which makes for a very interesting dynamic between Maaga and her troops. Although they are killers, they whimper like scolded children when faced with Maaga’s wrath. Her description of what it would be like to watch her enemies die is genuinely chilling. It is not surprising that she harbours an extreme xenophobic hatred towards the Rills.

Of course, it is the Rills who are truly the noble creatures and their realisation is very striking, with the tanks of ammonia that they dwell in and the Chumblies which are their voices and charming servants. It is a real pity that we are denied the shock cliff-hanger at the end of "Trap of Steel" where the Rill is finally seen by Vicki. By this point, even through the soundtrack alone, we realise that it’s the Drahvins who are the monsters. They are said to be ‘inferior products’ bred for war, and are incapable of abstract thought. However, they seem to crave Maaga’s approval, an approval they will never get. There is something simply ‘wrong’ with them, and there are times that I really pitied them, like one pities all the archetypal monsters.

Again, the regulars put in great work, with Vicki still managing to be lively and humorous without being annoying. Peter Purves shows in this story that, although Steven fills the same role as Ian, he does it in a completely different way. Hartnell manages to convey joy at new things with a stern morality that guides his actions throughout.

What is left of the story, visually, is excellent. The realisation of the Chumblies manages to be cute without being impractical. The sets and costumes also seem to be first rate. William Emms works in some gorgeous dialogue, such as when the Doctor describes the vapourisation of the planet as being ‘like silver’.

A summary of this story would make it look like a dumbed down version of The Sensorites. In reality it is so much more.

NEXT: "Mission to the Unknown"

Monday, 22 September 2008

The Time Meddler

In which the Doctor discovers one of his own race is attempting to change the course of history by destroying the forces of Harald Hardrada, so that the Battle of Stamford Bridge does not occur.

The above description would indicate a run-of-the-mill pseudo-historical had it referred to a story set a decade later. But this was only the seventeenth Doctor Who serial and, to the viewing public who had followed the Doctor’s adventures for the past two years, this would have been a thoroughly shocking episode that turned everything you knew about the Doctor on its head. It is clear that there is something very different about this journey into the past. Donald Cotton’s historicals had been increasingly moving away from John Lucarotti’s in theme as well as style. In Lucarotti’s historicals, the Doctor and his companions do not change the status quo and the Doctor states that ‘not one line’ of history can be changed. In The Romans, the Doctor inspires Nero to burn Rome, which means that the Doctor has been the cause of a historical fact. Of course, Nero (as the story depicts him) would probably have decided to burn Rome anyway. However, with The Time Meddler, we have a character that has directly influenced history (helping raise the megaliths of Stonehenge, putting the idea of powered flight to Leonardo Da Vinci) and now intends to alter it. History is no longer sacrosanct and history can be rewritten, and the anachronistic objects that increasingly turn up during the story add to this sense of ‘temporal violation’.

However, the greatest shock is that the Doctor is no longer unique. This is clear from the very start, when the Monk witnesses the materialisation of the TARDIS. There is surprise on his face, but not fear or shock, and when the regulars go into the sarcophagus and find themselves in a TARDIS, several assumptions about the Doctor are questioned. To viewers, it was assumed that the Doctor was the inventor of the TARDIS and he was unique amongst his people. This is no longer the case.

The Monk is clearly not evil- he tends Eldred’s wounds and, in aiming to destroy Hardrada’s army, rather than Williams, he will not be killing anyone who would not have died anyway. Indeed, rather than mistreat the imprisoned Doctor, the Monk goes to the trouble of cooking him a full-English breakfast. However, even though there is no direct threat to the Doctor’s life (apart from the cholesterol) the Doctor still puts his all into stopping the Monk and stranding him in time. Peter Butterworth is phenomenal as the Monk, giving a performance that is full of humour but doesn’t obscure the calculating intelligence in the character. The sense of fun that Butterworth imbues in the Monk means that we can accept ludicrous things like the very large to-do list and his diary of time meddling. Despite this, the Monk’s wail of anger and despair at being marooned still feels genuine.

The scenes with the regulars are a delight. Although we are still missing Ian and Barbara, Peter Purves is instantly likeable as Steven and his initial TARDIS scene is charming and very funny. Hartnell plays the Doctor as being increasingly annoyed with the relentless faux piety of the Monk and puts in one of his funniest performances.

Amongst the supporting cast, Alethea Charlton and Michael Miller are also excellent as Edith and Wulnoth. Charlton again plays a character from the past with bad hair, but she gives the character warmth and steel, sometimes within the same scene. Unfortunately there is precious little of note provided by the other speaking roles. Peter Russell lacks charisma as Eldred and Norman Hartley and David Anderson are far from memorable as the main Viking characters.

Cotton’s script full of funny lines, but the story is not just comedic. There is a shocking and very well acted scene where it is strongly implied that Edith has just been raped by the Vikings in which both Charlton and Miller give their all. Douglas Camfield does some good work in making Barry Newbery’s excellent sets look very convincing with canny use of stock footage. However, the fight scenes (arranged by David Anderson) are rather limp. Some might be turned off by the rather slow pacing and the fact that both the Doctor and the Monk practically soliloquise when they are alone.

The importance of this story cannot be overstated. When it was first broadcast, it was an oddity, but it increasingly became the template for the Doctor Who historical to come.

NEXT: Galaxy 4

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Chase

The Daleks are back pursuing the Doctor and his companions throughout eternity, or at least as much of eternity that can be depicted on a Doctor Who budget, stopping at the Empire State Building, the Mary Celeste and Ghana amongst other places. The Daleks pursue in a vehicle with the same dimensionally transcendental properties as the TARDIS and gain on the Doctor with every step.

The first episode, "The Executioners" is reasonably good. The scenes from history that are displayed on the Time-Space Visualiser are well done, particularly the charming Elizabethan one (we also get a vintage performance of "Ticket to Ride" from The Beatles). However, I must say that the Time-Space Visualiser is a bit of pseudo-science I cannot quite suspend my disbelief for, especially when it tunes into the Daleks that are on the TARDIS’s trail, rather than any other event that has ever happened or will happen. However, the story dips in quality once episode 2 starts. The Aridians are sketchily written and only adequately acted. Hywel Bennett would eventually become a great actor, but here, he is no better than any other young actor making their start in the profession. The Mire beasts are merely pathetic and immobile octopus models and hardly the stuff of nightmares.

This is nothing, however, compared to the abortions that are episodes 3-5. The Empire State Building at least has an amusing performance by an actor whom we will hear more of later. However, the Mary Celeste sequence is utterly amateurish and the haunted house segment plays like The Munsters but is even less funny. We are then given the atrocious ‘robot double’ of the Doctor which is, in actuality, poor Edmund Warwick who is taller than Hartnell and is dubbed very poorly. This episode is, very rightly, called "The Death of Doctor Who".

Then, miraculously, episode 6, "The Planet of Decision" manages to be excellent. The Mechanoids are excellently realised, with their incomprehensible alphanumeric dialogue, and the battle between them and the Daleks is excellently rendered with a well-constructed montage. The design of the Mechanoid city is great, and even the Michael Bentinesque miniatures actually work. We are also introduced to Steven Taylor, who is brilliantly brought to life from the start, by Peter Purves- speaking as a fan of all three characters, it is a real joy to have Ian, Barbara and Steven sharing scenes. There is also the ending of the story, which I shall return to later.

By all accounts, The Chase was written in a hurry at the last minute, and it really shows. Terry Nation would often resort to cliché, but this is actually worse. The middle episodes consist of ‘sketches’ that are clumsily tied together in order to boost the running time. The robot double segment is wholly unnecessary dramatically and, honestly, could not have been realised more poorly. Richard Martin’s excellent direction in "The Planet of Decision" is all the more astonishing because the preceding episodes have seen some of the sloppiest visual direction the programme has ever seen. The editing, too, is atrocious- look at the scene where Ian tricks the Dalek into a trap on Aridius (imaginative name there, Terry. Was it the planet Soakedus when it had an ocean?)

The portrayal of the Daleks is more comedic, but this approach is a failure. There is one Dalek who is a bit thick, but he is so underused that it does not work comedically and just looks like a mistake. The Daleks also fall into the sea for no reason and are beaten up by an amusement park Frankenstein(‘s monster). Even in the strong final episode, a fatally wounded Dalek screams ‘Am Exterminated! Am Exterminated!’.

The regulars make the best of what they are given and make this mess watchable, but it is the end of the story where they are shown at their best. This is, of course, Ian and Barbara’s final story and their leaving scene is utterly gorgeous. Ian states firmly to the doctor that he misses the ordinary things in life, the sense of belonging. The Doctor is furious that they would risk their lives in the Dalek machine, but programs the machine to take them back. We are treated to a joyous photo montage of them in 1965 and the Doctor watching them on the Time-Space Visualiser. He is visibly upset at their leaving, as am I. Ian and Barbara have become two of my favourite companions of all time. William Russell’s portrayal always made Ian interesting, always avoiding being just the square jawed hero by injecting playfulness and humour into the role. And Jacqueline Hill as Barbara- brave, intelligent, creative, funny and very, very sexy. Yes, she screamed at times when a lot of people would, but she also held a knife to Tlotoxl’s throat. She confused the Daleks with pseudo history. And she looks really good in a Roman stola. I shall miss them too.

It is a good thing that the last episode was so good, because this story contains some of the worst episodes of Doctor Who I have ever seen. It is not quite enough to save it.

NEXT: The Time Meddler

Monday, 15 September 2008

The Space Museum

The Space Museum is perhaps the most overlooked Hartnell episode of all- when it was released in VHS, it was put on the same tape as the surviving episodes of The Crusade and, of course, it was treated as a ‘supporting feature’ and therefore one would assume that it was just filler. It has a simple plot- the Morok Empire has conquered the planet Xeros and turned it into a museum dedicated to their empire building. The Xerons are planning a rebellion to overthrow the Moroks. So far, so generic. However, the way in which the story does this is what sells this.

The eponymous first episode is truly brilliant. The TARDIS crew arrive on Xeros, but they find that they are wearing their usual clothes, not the clothes they were wearing at the end of The Crusade. They leave no footprints, cannot be seen, cannot hear the Moroks or Xerons and cannot touch anything. Finally, we see their bodies in display cases- they have arrived in their own future, but are not fully synchronised with time. This episode is brilliantly disorientating and keeps the viewer wondering what the hell is going on (in a good way) thanks to Mervyn Pinfield‘s assured direction, great performances and some simple, but very effective effects work. The remaining three episodes are not as striking, but are effective enough. I must also mention that the fight scenes are some of the most effective I have seen in any era of the programme.

On a deeper level, the story deals with the age-old philosophical propositions of free-will and determinism. The characters are obviously trying to avoid ending up in those display cases, but wonder if their attempts to avoid it are actually leading them to that fate. Of course, free-will wins out, and furthermore the story seems to suggest that the fact that they acted at all, as opposed to accepting the ‘future’ is why that future did not come to pass. Which is brilliant. Just as importantly, the triumph of free will shows, for the first time, that history can be changed. It is this that lifts episodes 2-4 from the standard ‘rebels vs invaders’ story it could have been.

The performances of the regulars are brilliant as usual. There is a great sequence in "The Dimensions of Time" where the Doctor is interrogated by Lobos, the Morok Governor. He makes the mistake of informing the Doctor that he can see what he is thinking on a screen, whereupon the Doctor brilliantly misdirects Lobos with images of penny-farthings, walruses and himself in a bathing suit. The Doctor’s giggling at his own cleverness is a joy to behold. Ian is the consummate hero here, being intelligent, resourceful and single-minded in his quest to rescue the Doctor. However, this is the story where Vicki shines. We see her inspire the Xerons to seize control of the Morok Armoury, where she fools the computer into allowing the Xerons to take the weapons. Maureen O'Brien is fantastic throughout.

On the minus side, the Xerons and Moroks are slightly disappointing in their realisation (The Xerons’ alien feature is that they have four eyebrows) and although their portrayal is sound, there are no real stand-out performances amongst the guest cast. It is also unclear as to what exactly happened when the TARDIS crew saw their futures and the Doctor’s explanation makes no sense. These days, of course, there would be a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey explanation that would be more convincing. Also, the presence of the Dalek in the museum sort of implies that the Moroks conquered them, which I doubt- although, of course, there is another reason for the Dalek’s presence…

This story is a neglected gem of the Hartnell era. Watch it now!

NEXT: The Chase

Saturday, 13 September 2008

The Crusade

The TARDIS lands in the middle of the Third Crusade, where the Doctor and his companions find themselves embroiled in struggles on all levels of society. Saladin and Richard I are considering peace. The emir El Akir yearns for Saladin’s favour, but his pride and wrath threaten those underneath him.

This is another excellent historical, excellently directed by Douglas Camfield and with some brilliant performances, Julian Glover is excellent as Richard and Jean Marsh exudes fire and regality as Joanna. Their interplay is a joy to behold. Walter Randall, in a performance of great control, makes El Akir a memorable villain and George Little is excellent as his nemesis Haroun.

The story almost seems to want to be a Shakespearean history. A good deal of the dialogue is in iambic pentameter and the story is more concerned with politics and court intrigue than actual crusading. This results in some absolutely wonderful dialogue, but Whitaker doesn’t have the luxury of writing a five act play with lengthy soliloquies and characterisation suffers slightly. In addition, a sense of realism is lost when actors speak in metre. This affects the character of Saladin the most, which is probably why Bernard Kay seems a bit stifled in the role.

I am also not sure whether the plot quite manages to mesh together. The critical figure is El Akir- his loss of face before Saladin causes his vendetta against Barbara. Haroun is out for vengeance against El Akir. The trouble is that Haroun is introduced too late in the story for his victory to be as cathartic as it could be- there should have been a real feeling of ‘chickens coming home to roost’ when El Akir died.

Again, the regulars are excellent, with Vicki’s impish charm winning over all and Ian finally becoming a literal knight in shining armour. Barbara again shows her real courage and resourcefulness- her defiance of El Akir in front of Saladin is wonderful. The Doctor, meanwhile, shoplifts at a bazaar, wins a swordfight, advises the King and basically pulls out a plum with every digit he sticks his thumb into, with Hartnell delivering in spades.

Again, we have the question of white actors made up to be non-white characters. As in Marco Polo and The Aztecs, this is done sensitively on the most part (although Tutte Lemkow seems to have wandered in from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum!) and both sides are treated with respect (although Richard was a far less likeable figure in real life).

This does not detract from the fact that I was totally enthralled by the story- about as resoundingly successful as a qualified success can be!

NEXT: The Space Museum

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The Web Planet

The very first time I saw William Hartnell as the Doctor, was when I saw a clip of this story. Likewise, the Marshall Cavendish History of the 20th Century showed a still from this story when describing Doctor Who, so it is this story (and not a more obvious one like An Unearthly Child or The Daleks) that shaped my vision of 1960s Doctor Who when I was a child. Which is strange, as this story is an oddity in an era where every story tried to be different from the one before. We have the planet of Vortis, where the intelligent life forms are the Menoptra who are similar to giant butterflies. The planet has been taken over by a malignant intelligence called the Animus that has control over one of the indigenous animals, the Zarbi, who are like giant bipedal ants. The larval Zarbi are living cannons, shooting…something…out of their proboscides that acts like a laser beam. The Animus is spreading over the entire planet, causing the vegetation to wither and the surface water to vanish, leaving a barren landscape with pools of formic acid. The immense power it uses has caused other planets to appear near Vortis and orbit round it, and most of the Menoptra have fled to one of them. During that time the Menoptra left on Vortis have speciated into the Optera, who resemble giant caterpillars.

All this sounds fantastic on paper, but it has to be realised on screen, and it is this which is the problem with The Web Planet. The production team try to make it look good. The facial make-up for the Menoptra breaks up the lines on the actors’ faces very well. The Menoptra’s communication device is a lattice of crystal that has to be manipulated. The costume for the Zarbi is detailed beyond what is required for 405-line television. The studio scenes on Vortis are shot with a diffusing filter to show the rarefied atmosphere visually and the backdrops show a good deal of imagination.

But the wings of the Menoptera look like cellophane kites and they fly on visible Kirby wires. Every time a Zarbi touches anything, the clunk of its fibreglass body is all too obvious. The backdrops are reasonably effective until someone casts a shadow on what is meant to be the sky. The Animus is excellently voiced by Catherine Fleming, but disappoints visually. Admittedly, most Doctor Who stories require one to suspend one’s disbelief but disbelief here weighs several tonnes and requires not so much suspension, but structurally sound load bearing support from beneath.

The performances by the regulars are solid, but Hartnell fluffs a great deal and he seems to be utterly bemused by his surroundings at some points. The Menoptra speak in thin reedy voices and seem to be waxing large invisible moustaches. The Optera speak in staccato grunts throughout. Richard Martin’s direction is variable. At some points he does succeed in convincing us that we are looking at a totally alien world. At other points Zarbi crash into the camera. The editing ranges from the adequate to the awful, meaning that the pacing is severely affected. Martin even fumbles the first appearance of the Zarbi- they simply wander on screen for a totally pointless scene.People might claim that it must have looked better when broadcast as the audience had lower expectations of special effects, but the audience must have had some reservations about the visual effectiveness of the story.

In places the script is fantastic. The dialogue given to the Optera has been rightly praised as being an attempt to show alien thought patterns and there is lyrical dialogue throughout. In fact, the world-building of Bill Strutton is intoxicatingly imaginative, a world that directors like Jean Cocteau and Hayao Miyazaki would have a field day with. However, it is poorly paced and far too long, and could have worked far better as a four parter.

Again, this is not a bad story per se, but I cannot say that it is one I genuinely enjoyed. Like Ian, I probably won’t be returning to Vortis.

NEXT: The Crusade

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The Romans

Dennis Spooner strikes again with his second historical, which finds the Doctor and his companions holidaying in Ancient Rome after the events of The Rescue. However, this leads to Ian and Barbara being captured by slave traders and the Doctor and Vicki going to Nero’s court in Rome, where the intrigue deepens.

As with The Reign of Terror, Spooner blends gritty realism with comedy, but the comedy is far more to the fore here. Nero is largely played as a comic character by the excellent Derek Francis, and his interplay with his annoying slave Tigellinus is hilarious (Brian Proudfoot also deserves special mention for his wonderful, wordless performance). Episode 3 is notable for being almost a sitcom, with the Barbara being chased by the lecherous Nero and just avoiding bumping into the Doctor and Vicki. Tigellinus’s casual poisoning had me in stitches. However, the scenes with Ian as a slave are pretty grim. Ian is a gladiator and a galley slave in this and the squalor of Roman slavery is not avoided by the story and the gladiatorial combat is actually rather well choreographed.

The regulars are on fine form, with Barbara again showing that intelligent, strong willed female companions are not an innovation of the 21st century. The interplay between Ian and Barbara is now unmistakeably that of a couple and there are times where you can imagine them kissing a moment later. Vicki’s excitement at her new life is infectiously brought to life by Maureen O'Brien. Here, Vicki shows she is more than a surrogate Susan when she almost poisons Nero because of Poppea’s plan to poison ‘some poor slave’. However, Hartnell continues to astonish as the Doctor, at one point punning relentlessly about playing in the arena, and at another having his first genuine fight scene, where it is clear no stunt-double was used.

If there is any criticism, the sitcom elements of the story seem to have brought with it sitcom production values. The sets are impressive, but not as brilliant as in previous historical (interestingly, Ray Cusick designed this one, rather than Barry Newbery). Christopher Barry’s direction is rather basic visually, although he manages to get good performances out of the whole cast.

It would be interesting at this point to compare Spooner's approach to the historical in Doctor Who with John Lucarotti’s. Lucarotti is intent on immersing the viewer in the time when the story is set, trying to make the viewer feel like they are back in time. The drama here comes as much from the personalities bred in the environments of the setting as in actual history. Spooner is far more interested in plot and intrigue and he picks periods where events are dramatic and iconic. Although a degree of research has gone into The Romans, the production team is not above changing things for effect- Nero is middle-aged, rather than young, Tigellinus is Nero’s personal slave rather than his sadistic lackey. These changes are nothing new or shocking- artistic licence was taken with the likes of Spartacus and Quo Vadis?. Spooner’s historicals are, perhaps, lesser as works of art than Lucarotti’s, but they are thoroughly entertaining throughout.

NEXT: The Web Planet

Saturday, 6 September 2008

The Rescue

There isn’t really a lot to be said about The Rescue, apart from that it’s the story that introduces Vicki. This is not to say that it’s a bad story by any means. Vicki is engagingly played by Maureen O'Brien, Cusick’s design work is as good as ever and it is well directed by Christopher Barry, with effective lighting (which I was able to notice in spite of the appalling transfer used for the VHS, making my admiration for the Doctor Who Restoration Team all the greater).

Dennis Spooner comes up with some cracking dialogue, although the end is a bit rushed, with the Dido people turning up and causing Bennett to fall to his death. Also, the cliff-hanger to "The Powerful Enemy" seems to be there for the sake of providing a cliff-hanger. In these days where the Doctor seems to know about every species in the Universe, it is strange to note that this is the first time the Doctor arrives on a planet that he’s been to before. This means that the natives are people that he already knows and cares about, and we see that in his rage against Bennett for the apparent genocide of the Dido people, something the Doctor would do many times again.

We are treated to some cracking work from the regulars. Look at the expressions of William Hartnell’s face just after he has asked Susan to open the TARDIS door. Ian and Barbara’s reactions to being told that they are 550 years old are priceless. Ray Barrett as Bennett, however, seems to be going through the motions somewhat.

Many people seem to see this story as being merely filler. It is a bit inconsequential, but enjoyable nevertheless and well worth taking 51 minutes of your life to check out.

NEXT: The Romans

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

For the first time, Doctor Who looks to its past, but this does not mean that the production team were treading water. On the contrary, all the stops were pulled out for the return of the Daleks, taking the programme into new areas. We are taken into a world where everyone’s favourite ‘motorised dustbins’ have taken over, and the TARDIS crew find themselves caught in the London of the 22nd century, where the Daleks have the few surviving humans by the throat, while their ultimate plan for Earth comes closer to fulfilment.

It is, perhaps, in this serial that the concept of Daleks as Nazis first becomes absolutely blatant. This is a world of black marketeers and blitzed buildings, but it is also a place with labour camps and summary executions, where the worst of the Blitz is combined with the occupation of Czechoslovakia and a vague hint of the horrors of Poland. One of the Daleks’ chanting sessions is chilling- upon the order to exterminate all humans, one chants ‘kill… kill… kill…’ and another chants ‘final solution…’ Off screen, we hear the extermination of a man who, in the midst of his terror, rages at them about the murder of his wife and brother. The first appearance of a Dalek, rising out of the Thames is justly famous and they are far from the pathetic creatures confined to their city that they were in their first appearance. Here they race along bridges and are shown at the Albert Memorial- meaning, of course that they can climb stairs. However, their voices are nothing like as effective as in their first story, the ring modulator barely affecting the actors’ voices.

The supporting cast are sound, without being spectacular, yet, again it is the regulars who make it work. Hartnell’s performance is astounding- this story providers the most proactive role for him yet, and he fires on all cylinders to fulfil that. This is Carole Ann Ford’s last story and, happily, her best. This could be because she is given so much more to do, and it is a real shame when she goes. More on that later.

Visually, this story is unlike any of the others that preceded it. There are extensive scenes filmed on location, and the direction, editing and cinematography are all first rate. The highlight, of course, is Barbara, Dortmun and Jenny being chased across a desolate London by the Daleks, a fantastic montage with frenetic camera work and razor sharp editing. There are some great design work with the Dalek sets and I love the Dalek lettering painted on streets and famous landmarks.

The first Dalek story contained quite a few longueurs (boring bits of padding, as less pretentious people call them) but in this story, the episode length is more justified. Events are kept interesting by splitting the travellers into groups, all of which work against the Daleks as well as trying to find each other. There are some genuinely surprising plot twists- I was not expecting the Doctor’s rescuer to get exterminated a minute afterwards. At this point, however, I must mention the last episode. The pacing is atrocious, but it contains some fantastic material- Barbara’s history lesson to the Daleks (resulting in the funniest Dalek line of the 20th Century 'Daleks are the Masters of India') and, of course the ending. David and Susan’s attraction is built up gradually as is the Doctor’s knowledge and acceptance of it. Despite some atrocious dialogue in the story, the Doctor’s farewell to Susan is utterly gorgeous and utterly convincing.

Of course there are numerous plot holes and some horrific scientific errors. I’m not usually bothered too much by scientific errors, but they are really bad here. The Earth does not have a magnetic core, it has a magnetic field, caused by the movement of the liquid outer core. Also, it is by no means the only planet with a magnetic field. I must also mention the flying saucer effects. They’re really, really, really bad and actually do look like hubcaps held up by string. Watch it on DVD with the CGI replacements if you don’t want to be totally dragged out of the story.

However, this story comes very highly recommended- good stuff!

NEXT: The Rescue

Monday, 1 September 2008

Planet of Giants

The second season kicks off with the first three part story of the series. It starts off well with the Doctor and his companions exploring what seems to be a bizarre world with outlandish creatures. Then, of course, it turns out that they have been miniaturised in the course of materialisation, and the stage is set for a battle of wits against a familiar world made deadly, as in the 1957 science fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man.

However, there is also a larger problem for the time travellers and, unfortunately, the insecticide plot is unambitious and dull in the extreme. The nature of the story means that the ‘giant’ side of the plot must take place in a geographically limited setting- two rooms and a garden door in this case. A limited environment such as this means that character interaction must be paramount; however, with Farrow being shot in his first scene, we are left with the characters of Forester and Smithers, who are allies, which makes for far poorer drama. This is exacerbated by the fact that Alan Tilvern puts no effort into his performance as Forester, seeming to rely on his naturally villainous looking face.

This is a real shame, as the ‘miniature’ half of the story works excellently. The giant sets are fantastic, as are the giant insects encountered. The fly is brilliantly done, pivoting its head and bobbing its abdomen up and down. The use of photographic blow-ups for some backgrounds actually works, probably because of the 405 line black and white image. Also, the idea that the voices of the ‘giants’ are too low frequency to be understood is something which has never popped up in similar stories told elsewhere. For the first time, this is a story where the special effects succeed across the board. There is some excellent visual direction and ‘cinematography’- light is used very effectively, and there are good uses of high shots, although no low shots (which would have been impossible with studio cameras, and would have to have been done on film). However, direction of the actors is very slack- Alan Tilvern was not a bad actor (at least judging from the only other thing I’ve seen him in, an episode of Dad’s Army) and the directors should have pushed him a little harder! The regulars are excellent as usual, with Jacqueline Hill putting in a great performance as Barbara (something I seem to be typing in every review) with her great stoicism and unselfishness as she is being poisoned by the pesticide.

The plot is simple, but there are still a few things that bother me. What the hell is ‘space pressure’? And why, exactly, does the seed not just become bigger with the TARDIS? Also, I’m surprised that a children’s show was allowed to show a scene with a gas tap being ignited and used to explode a pressurised container! In addition (although there is no way the production team could have known this) we have a ruthless magnate who produces a hazardous substance with a subordinate called Smithers!

This story is one of the reasons I don’t give stories marks. The adventures of the inch-high regulars are simply too well done to allow the tepid ‘giant’ side of the story to ruin it. All I can say is that it is watchable and enjoyable, but it probably won’t move you in the way that the best Doctor Who stories do.

NEXT: The Dalek Invasion of Earth