Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Carnival of Monsters

Before 1973, there were four stories written by a writer called Robert Holmes. It was in the tenth season, however, that 'Robert Holmes: Greatest Doctor Who Writer of Them All' made his debut. Carnival of Monsters is one of those stories that are just effortlessly good, succeeding in accomplishing everything it set out to do.

A major reason for its quality is its script. The plot is intriguing enough, but the structure of the narrative is very skilfully constructed for maximum effect. At the start of the story, it appears that we are watching two completely separate stories, but the links become more and more obvious in the first episode, until one of the most startling cliff-hangers of all time. The story is brimming with witty dialogue and every speaking role is a real character, with great interplay between them- the famous 'Robert Holmes double-acts'. Holmes succeeds in making Inter Minor a thoroughly convincing alien world, with the elite speaking in an excessively formal manner and the Functionaries being a very literal lumpenproletariat. Of course, the story also works as a satire of television itself, with the environments in the MiniScope being on separate 'channels' and an 'aggrometer' being used to make the inhabitants more violent (but only to a certain level of acceptability, of course!)

The quality of the characterisation and dialogue is heightened by the use of a uniformally excellent cast. Leslie Dwyer and Cheryl Hall are great fun as Vorg and Shirna and Michael Wisher and Peter Halliday great as Kalik and Orum. As far as the regulars are concerned, both Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning put in some of their best work yet. The characterisation of the Doctor in this story is, together with Inferno probably the best of the whole Pertwee era- the Doctor makes a stand for all that is right, yet takes time to communicate with chickens.

The production values are first rate, with great sets and simple, yet effective makeup for the Minorans. The Drashigs are excellently realised monsters, being well designed, mobile and having that amazing screaming roar. Barry Letts calls the shots with consummate skill throughout. The only real criticism I have is with some of the shots of the Drashigs where video and film are mixed, which is extremely jarring for the viewer.

In case you haven't realised, I love this story, a contender for the best Pertwee story and one of the best Doctor Who stories full stop.

NEXT: Frontier in Space

Monday, 26 January 2009

The Three Doctors

Doctor Who managed to overcome the problem of how to survive after the lead actor left with immense creativity. Yet there must have still been some who missed Patrick Troughton and some (many of whom were now adults) who still remembered William Hartnell fondly. Both groups wondered what ‘their’ Doctor would have made of their successors and the start of the tenth season gave these fans what they had been hoping for. It is this aspect of the story that must be looked at first. There is a plot, but the plot is not the point of this story. There is a guest cast, but only two of them really matter. This is about fondly looking at the past, about younger siblings bonding with their older ones, of parents watching a programme with their children for exactly the same reason.

From the second he materialises, Patrick Troughton plays the Doctor like he’d never been away. Whatever the quality of the story (and he was in quite a few stinkers) Troughton was never less than excellent as the Doctor. His interpretation of the Doctor as someone who acted the fool in order to get his enemies to underestimate him makes an interesting contrast with the more diplomatic, yet confrontational Doctor as played by Jon Pertwee. The interaction between the two of them is utterly fantastic and is enough to make this story worth watching on its own. Then, of course, there is William Hartnell. One thing I have come to realise in this little project of mine is that the Hartnell era was the best, one of the many reasons for which being Hartnell’s consistently outstanding performance. Unfortunately, Hartnell’s declining health led to him having a very restricted role in the story. The fact that his performance is still thoroughly convincing despite the fact that he was reading from cue cards is testament to the great skill of the actor. Even in such a limited capacity, it is truly joyous seeing William Hartnell as Doctor Who for the last time.

The script by Bob Baker and Dave Martin is very interesting. The Time Lords are having their power drained into a universe of anti-matter. The culprit is discovered to be Omega, a stellar engineer who created the immense power source needed to fuel time travel, but trapping himself in a black hole in the process. The only option for the Time Lords is to pit the three Doctors against Omega, and the denizens of the anti-matter universe that he has created. Baker/Martin scripts usually demand a great deal on the production side and one can imagine what Cardiff today could do with anti-matter creatures, black holes and singularities and the like. It is, therefore, remarkable that the visualisation of Omega and his world is (although far from ideal) capable of suspending our disbelief. The Gel-Guards are, of course, utterly rubbish, with their ridiculous appearance and the ridiculous ‘blobby-blobby’ noises they make. However, although the sets are a bit garish, they are reasonably effective. The realisation of the singularity as a column of smoke works well- we are in Omega’s world and can accept such figurative realisations better. The success of the visual side is also helped by the fact that Lennie Mayne directs. Mayne never let the fact that he was working on a tiny budget in a television studio stop him from creating interesting shots and compositions. The one creative decision I find fault with is that we only see Hartnell on a TV screen by shooting the screen itself and we never see the actual footage shot of Hartnell on its own.

The regulars are on good form. Katy Manning seems to mesh well with Mayne’s directorial style and Benton is given much more to do than usual, which John Levene takes full advantage of. There has been much criticism of the treatment of the Brigadier’s character, but I found that to mainly refer to the scene where UNIT HQ is transported to Omega’s world. In the rest of the story, the Brig is resourceful and shows great humanity in the scene where they have to part with the Doctors. Stephen Thorne brings a great deal of energy into the role of Omega, together with some amount of pathos. His shouting is sometimes ineffective, though.

This story is hugely enjoyable throughout, well worth investing 100 minutes in!

NEXT: Carnival of Monsters

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Time Monster

It is interesting to compare The Time Monster with The Mutants. In the earlier story, a conceptually ambitious and intelligent idea is let down by poor storytelling and variable acting. The Time Monster is the same, except for the conceptual ambition and intelligence bit.

The basic plot is this. The Master, disguised as Professor Thaskalos has set up a project called TOMTIT. The real purpose of the project is to summon and control a being called Kronos, from a race called the Kronovores. The key to true control of Kronos lies 3500 years in the past, in the lost realm of Atlantis, where Kronos created a golden age.

There is nothing really wrong with that as a plot. However, in turning that plot into a script, would you a) get to the Atlantis part as quickly as possible or (b) waste four episodes with increasingly ludicrous set pieces that all make the same point- time does funny things when there’s a Kronovore about. In these four episodes, we learn nothing new about the characters and not only is there no actual worsening crisis, there is no plot progression at all. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the dialogue varies in quality from forgettable to excruciating and we have some truly awful guest performances. Wanda Moore and Ian Collier aren’t actually bad actors, but their characters are irritating. Donald Eccles is clearly doing proper acting, but utterly failing in turning that into a performance. This is the worst example of directing an ensemble in Doctor Who since The Underwater Menace- in their scenes together Roger Delgado and Eccles seem to be saying their lines without realising there is another actor in the room. However, I sympathise with Paul Bernard- if I was presented with a script this awful, I would consider it dramatically unsalvageable and simply try to make the actual production as bearable as possible for myself, even if it stretches to zooming for no reason or getting the actors to pretend to run on the spot in slow motion.

Part four is much better, purely because it is a competently made piece of television. Then we get to the Atlantis part, which contains the one outstanding performance from a member of the guest cast. George Cormack is suitably dignified and sympathetic as King Dalios. Ingrid Pitt is less skilful as Queen Galleia, but she’s so damn sexy, I can forgive this. Aidan Murphy as Hippias gives a performance that is, what people who have never been to the theatre call theatrical, with unsubtle gesturing and vocalisation. Susan Penhaligon, however, is quietly effective as Lakis.

The design work is sound, particularly in Atlantis. However, the realisation of Kronos is absolutely awful- a monster that not only looks like, but is treated as a pigeon that has accidentally flown into a room. The final appearance of Kronos, as a vast disembodied head, is far more effective. Dudley Simpson seems to be as annoyed by the story as Bernard and seems to be improvising badly at some points.

The regulars are about as effective as they can be in this fiasco- bizarrely, this is one of Katy Manning’s best performances. Pertwee manages to be effective throughout, as does Courtney. Delgado is very good, considering what he had to work with, especially in the sexual tension he has with Galleia. However, the scene where he begs Kronos for mercy is pitched and performed in the wrong way.

This story is an overlong, brainless, lumbering mess, the worst story since The Underwater Menace. I had to watch it. You don’t.

NEXT: The Three Doctors

Monday, 19 January 2009

The Mutants

The Mutants has the Doctor being sent by the Time Lords to the planet Solos in the 30th century. The Earth Empire is in decline and subject planets are gradually being given their independence. However, there are colonial officials who wish to retain their authority on Solos, and some of the natives are exhibiting horrific mutations.

It is interesting to compare The Mutants with The Curse of Peladon. In the earlier story, a pre-industrial civilisation joins the Galactic Federation. Here, the Earth Empire has drained a planet of its natural resources and is granting it independence. However, the most interesting comparison is in the actual execution of the story. The Curse of Peladon is a very simple story. The Mutants is far more sophisticated and intelligent, taking in themes like colonialism, racism, xeno-biology, transhumanism and cultural development. However, The Curse of Peladon is a wonderful story, because its realisation is absolutely splendid. The Mutants…isn't.

The idea of a planet that has a year of 2000 Earth years and the notion that, although the Earth Empire has been there for centuries, it has only experienced one season is intriguing. The fact that this makes any civilisation on Solos subject to environmental factors that are cyclical but not predictable shows a true understanding by Bob Baker and Dave Martin of the conceptual audaciousness that can lead to good science fiction. However, they seem to lack any understanding about how to tell that story in 24 minute segments. Although I have never seen this story before, I knew what the plot was beforehand, and I realised at the end of episode 4 that there was precious little plot left and two episodes to go. Yet again, there is no need for this to be a 6-parter.

The acting is variable. Garrick Hagon gives a solid, dignified performance as Ky. Geoffrey Palmer is excellent- he is so ubiquitous, it is easy to forget that he has never given a performance that is less than first rate. However, he is killed off very early on. Paul Whitsun-Jones is a bit over the top as the Marshal, but he is an actor with great presence and personality and I have always enjoyed his performances as irascible blowhards. Then there is Rick James as Cotton. Cotton is the first black character in Doctor Who to be a major supporting player, so it is a crying shame that James provides one of the worst performances I have ever seen. Not only does he fail to properly depict the character, his line readings sound like he's reading from a badly-punctuated autocue and, most damningly of all, he misses a fair few cue lines from his fellow actors. Better, though still terrible, is James Mellor as Varan, constantly talking in the third person (although this manner of speaking has always annoyed me and, as far as I am concerned, only the Hulk and Curtly Ambrose can get away with it!)

Christopher Barry does his best with the mess of a script. Some scenes, such as Sondegaard appearing like an angel to rescue Jo, verge on the iconic. The location work for Solos is very effectively done but, although the design work is sound, many of the interior scenes are overlit. The most successful piece of design is that of the Mutants themselves, which are detailed and actually manage to break up the outline of the actor inside the costume.

This is a very thought-provoking story, but one thought that is provoked time and time again is 'this could have been so much better'. This story fails to make the grade because it has so much potential and wastes it completely. It really could have been one of the triumphs of the Pertwee era and Doctor Who in general.

NEXT: The Time Monster

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Sea Devils

Ships have been disappearing in a small area off the coast of England and the Doctor and Jo discover that a group of intelligent reptiles related to those on Wenley Moor are responsible and the Doctor must join forces with the Navy to investigate. Meanwhile, the Master's incarceration may not be as secure as it seems and he may not be entirely ignorant of the saurian threat.

Doctor Who and the Silurians was one of the highlights of the truly outstanding seventh season of Doctor Who and many of the same themes are revisited in this sequel. Indeed, the overall aim of the story is identical, in much the same way as the repetitive Cybermen stories of the Patrick Troughton era. Thankfully, Malcolm Hulke was a far better writer than Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis and there are enough differences to make this story more than a straight remake. Hulke takes care to make as many of the speaking roles proper characters. Trenchard is portrayed as a former colonial governor of the old school and Walker, the Private Secretary, is portrayed as a man who seldom talks without his mouth full (Pertwee-era Doctor Who seems to have little love for high ranking civil servants, what with Chinn and Brownrose). This care in characterisation is especially impressive when one notes just how many speaking roles there are, but even minor characters, such as the boatman, are given real personality. This is supported by a fine guest cast. Clive Morton makes Trenchard both bluff and sympathetic and Edwin Richfield gamely attempts to compensate for the lack of the Brigadier, with some success. I also love Martin Boddey's performance as the gluttonous Walker.

Michael Briant's direction is hugely effective, helped by extensive use of stock footage and naval hardware courtesy of the Royal Navy, making this a very lavish production. Briant also shoots very atmospherically, showing great aptitude with action scenes and moody, unsettling ones, with interesting camera angles and very effective lighting. The gradual revelation of the Sea Devils is very well done. The titular saurians are very well designed (although close ups of their heads tend to draw attention to the fact that their eyes are painted on). Most impressively, the Sea Devils are not slow and lumbering, but are shown running on several occasions. The music is even more bizarre than on Doctor Who and the Silurians, but is far less ridiculous, thanks to the lack of crumhorns!

However, the fact remains that this story does not build and expand on its predecessor in the way that a good sequel should do, but covers the same themes. The Sea Devils, unlike the Silurians, are not portrayed as characters- indeed only one of them (the leader) even speaks, which makes them less sympathetic than their land-based cousins. The fact that they are portrayed as being more aggressive than their relatives does not help matters. They are not antagonists with understandable motives of their own, they are The Enemy. The fact that the Master is involved does not help matters as he takes the role of 'Young Silurian' and there is no real reason why he should have been included at all. This is unfortunate, as Roger Delgado gives his best performance yet as the Master. More seriously, the story implies that the Doctor has learnt nothing from his previous encounter with the reptiles as he takes exactly the same tack in dealing with them. Indeed, the fact that it is the Doctor, not the armed forces, who destroy the Sea Devil base implies that he is moving towards the Government's way of thinking, which is somewhat disturbing and very out of character.

The script is also far less structured than Doctor Who and the Silurians. The earlier story used its seven parts well, but The Sea Devils seems overlong at six parts. There is obvious padding, such as the sword fight between the Doctor and the Master and the last episode is somewhat anticlimactic and, as said before, has a rather unsavoury conclusion. The regulars are on excellent form, with Pertwee balancing humour and authority excellently. Jo Grant is at her best when she is not depicted as a totally scatter-brained moron, and Katy Manning is excellent here.

The Sea Devils is rarely boring, is well acted with much good dialogue and characterisation and has a good race of monsters. However, it fails to build on its predecessor and can only really be seen as a qualified success.

Next: The Mutants

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Curse of Peladon

The Curse of Peladon takes the Doctor and Jo away to the titular planet, a civilisation at an apparently European mediæval level of development, which is joining the galactic federation. However, there are elements in this society that oppose this and the mythical figure of Aggedor seems to be angered.

The plot of the story seems to be simple, with the Doctor helping to ease Peladon into the modern world and solve the mystery of Aggedor. However, the story manages to be utterly gripping from start to finish, purely because it does what it does utterly flawlessly. Brian Hayles’s script is fantastic, with the plot constructed very efficiently. The dialogue is beautiful- scenes that would seem clunky if written by a lesser writer are carried out with real elegance and wit. The characterisation is spot on. Peladon comes off as being progressive and merciful, without seeming weak. Hepesh is painted as being the antagonist, but we can see his motives, despite his adherence to primitive ritual and prejudice against aliens. In the most wonderful of twists, the Ice Warriors are brought back- but not as the villains. The presentation of a past enemy of the Doctor as now being benevolent is a welcome and mature development in the world of Doctor Who.

However, the appeal of the story is not merely in its deceptively simple story. In addition to the Ice Warriors, we have Alpha Centauri and Arcturus, a pair of wonderfully designed and realised aliens. Alpha Centauri is a one–eyed hermaphrodite hexapod (I can imagine the awkward explanations parents would have tried to give at the time!) with a shrill feminine voice, courtesy of Ysanne Churchman and Arcturus is realised as a kind of tentacled skull in a perspex dome. The interaction between the delegates is also well written.

Lennie Mayne directs very atmospherically, getting great performances from the cast and overseeing some very creative camerawork and interesting compositions. A case in point is the revelation of Ssorg, the Ice Warrior. He lumbers onscreen from the right to the left in a very simple, but hugely effective shot. Every shot has obviously been created to be interesting and effective. The design throughout is excellent, from the castle through to the costumes, and very well lit, with the castle being lit as if burning torches are the only light source.

The cast is superlative. Alan Bennion makes Izlyr both a menacing Ice Lord and a benevolent character. I love the scene when he privately admits to Jo that he finds Alpha Centauri annoying. Then there is David Troughton. He is acclaimed today as one of the finest actors in the country (I have personally seen him be utterly fantastic in roles as varied as Richard II and Captain Hook) and he is thoroughly excellent here. Jon Pertwee has to play detective, fighter and politician here, and does that with humour and aplomb, fighting with Grun, King Peladon’s champion and taming Aggedor with a Venusian lullaby. Katy Manning is truly fantastic here, Jo showing initiative and diplomatic skills. Her budding romance with Peladon is beautifully written and both Troughton and Manning are well up to it. Lennie Mayne clearly knows exactly how to motivate this fantastic cast to give the best possible performance.

I don’t personally think The Curse of Peladon is the best Doctor Who story of all time. It is, however, pretty close and, as a Doctor Who story, utterly perfect.

NEXT: The Sea Devils

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Day of the Daleks

Day of the Daleks features an interesting proto-Terminator plotline- a global peace conference organised by a Sir Reginald Styles is bombed and future generations will blame him for it- for the bombing results in a global war that will leave the Earth open to invasion by the Daleks. Commandos are sent back in time to assassinate Styles, to prevent that future coming to pass.

This is one of the few stories to use time travel as more than the means to get the Doctor from adventure to adventure and it is reasonably well thought out. There is a discussion between the Doctor and Jo as to why the time travellers cannot keep coming back to the same point in time to correct any mistakes they might have made (although the Doctor is conveniently interrupted before actually explaining the ‘Blinovitch Limitation Effect’). There are a few problems, most notably that the Daleks are aware of the real cause of the explosion. It would have been better had they been unaware as well, rather than adding an unnecessary and confusing dimension to the plot. However, Louis Marks’s script tells an effective story with little padding and holds up quite well.

Of course, the main selling point is the return of the Daleks to Doctor Who after 5 years. Unfortunately, they are considerably underused (it is easy to see that they were a late addition to the script) and it is obvious that there are only three of them. Their voices are very different to those used in any other story which jars somewhat. However, it is good to see them back. The story also introduces their dim-witted henchmen, the Ogrons. The Ogron make-up is outstanding and these lumbering super-apes manage to be both menacing and comical at the same time.

The guest cast is generally good (although the technician at the Dalek base has an odd manner of speaking, which is never addressed). The best performance is definitely Aubrey Woods as the Controller, giving a very sympathetic portrayal of the latest in ‘a family of Quislings’. The scene where he expertly gets Jo to freely divulge the information he needs is very well acted. Paul Bernard directs with great fluidity, with some very effective editing. The whole production is of a high standard, although the fact that there are only three Daleks is particularly obvious in the assault on Auderly House.

Jon Pertwee is fantastically unflappable as the Doctor- there is a scene which the viewer will either love or hate, where the Doctor does his Venusian aki-do on a commando and then takes a sip of wine. UNIT is also on good form here- there is the great ‘RHIP’ scene between Benton and Yates. Jo Grant has to spend a good portion of the story being hoodwinked, but Katy Manning still manages to make her appealing.

Although by no means a great story, Day of the Daleks is entertaining and stands up to repeat viewings well.

NEXT: The Curse of Peladon

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The Dæmons

The main asset that The Dæmons possesses (ha!) is atmosphere. In attempting to portray Satanism in a scientific context for a family audience, director Christopher Barry makes the story seem reminiscent of (then) recent British horror films. The opening is very Hammeresque and in other places, notably the malevolent Morris dancers, the story seems to anticipate The Wicker Man by two years. Barry's direction is very effective throughout, with crane shots and the lighting throughout is very evocative- scenes set in the crypt are lit with red and exterior shots are always a bit murky (although this could be an effect of the primitive colourising process used to restore the story)

However, the story stumbles when it comes to plotting. The story is stuffed with good set pieces, but they are very poorly integrated and do not constitute a cohesive narrative. For example, the opening scene where a man is killed in the churchyard is great- until it becomes obvious that Azal has not risen, nor Bok activated- so what killed him? The resolution of the story is terrible- Azal is ready to kill the Doctor, but destroys himself when Jo willingly offers to be killed in the Doctor's stead. This is after the Doctor has spent a good deal of time supervising the building of a machine to break the heat barrier and drain Azal's energy- which then blows up shortly after it is turned on. This machine is the most gratuitous piece of padding in the story and should not have taken up more than 10 minutes, if this was all the plot significance it was going to have.

The other main problem is the guest cast. This has to be one of the most uninspiring ensemble of actors that a Doctor Who story has ever had. Colony in Space had good actors playing dull characters, whereas here, we have the opposite problem. The most interesting characters are Professor Horner and the BBC crew and they only really appear in episode 1. Of the remainder, Don McKillop as Bert the Landlord is reasonably good as is Rollo Winstanley as the Squire. The others are pretty much faceless and phone in their performances- not good if you want a village full of malevolent rural types and you get a bunch of Mummerset mumblers. Then there is Damaris Hayman as Miss Hawthorne. It is a good thing that the actress has such an interesting screen presence, because she gives one of the most annoying performances I have seen in the programme.

The regulars are on good form- it is interesting to see UNIT in civvies and they are clearly having a whale of a time. Of special note is Jon Pertwee- the Doctor is clearly moody after a long drive with many wrong turns and his bad mood continues for a good portion of the story. He is impatient and rather patronising and it's only the natural likeability of the actor that makes us stick with him.

The Dæmons is perfectly entertaining and enjoyable. The trouble is, it will dawn on you afterwards that it's not particularly good.

NEXT: Day of the Daleks

Monday, 5 January 2009

Colony in Space

Colony in Space has the Third Doctor travelling in the TARDIS for the first time to an alien planet, namely, the planet Uxarieus, where a colony from earth has been established. However, the ruthless Interplanatary Mining Company want to claim the planet for its mineral wealth and the apparently primitive natives hold a deadly secret.

When Malcolm Hulke writes a Doctor Who story, one thing the viewer can expect is a degree of intelligence, airing of social issues and the like. However, it takes more than that to create an engaging narrative. This story is well designed and competently directed. The performances are generally good, although perhaps a bit mannered in places. However, the story fails in two key areas- characterisation and plot.

The colonists have no really interesting characters amongst them. They are depicted as worthy decent folk, some slightly more aggressive than others. The impression that is given is, frankly, The Good Life in space (although the story predates that programme). What made that cosy 70s sitcom watchable were the characters and the fact that it could be very funny. Remove that, and you have a bunch of earnest middle-class types talking endlessly about crops- hardly the most arresting series of events. The IMC people are more interesting purely because they are bent on causing the colonists harm. However, the colonists are so boring that, whilst the viewer wants IMC to be thwarted, it is not for the sake of the colonists. Pertwee and Delgado are great as usual, but Katy Manning is severely hampered by a story that asks no more of her than to scream and be rescued by the Doctor.

The arrival of the Master makes things much more interesting. We are taken into the alien city and are shown the reason for the Master's presence (and the reason for the Time Lords allowing the Doctor to travel in the TARDIS. The aliens are reasonably well realised, as is their city, although the realisation of the alien leader is unwittingly reminiscent of Vic and Bob's Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye! The problem is that these events occur too late in what is a longueur saturated 6-episode narrative. Had more time been given to this, the story might have been saved.

This is a pity, as there is little in the story that is actually bad- in fact, the story might have been more entertaining had there been a hammy performance, silly music or a really rubbish monster. Instead, Colony in Space commits a crime that very few Doctor Who stories are guilty of- being dull. One for completists only.

NEXT: The Dæmons