Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Pirate Planet

Of all the writers who scripted Doctor Who in the 20th Century, only one became so successful that he arguably became almost as iconic as the series itself. Douglas Adams was riding the wave of success of the first radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when this story, the second in the Key to Time season was brought out. Adams's renown colours the perception of any viewer coming to the story today- we are looking for the detached view of the universe, the ideas that are both daft and brilliant, the absurd situations and the people that they spawn. We certainly get some very imaginative ideas- the Zanak, the planet that devours others; inertia absorbing corridors; a gestalt being formed from the psychic energy of the dead of a destroyed planet and moulding random inhabitants of Zanak to become Mentiads, beings with awesome psychic powers .

However, as you all know, I have been absorbed in Doctor Who for months, which led me to consider something- Douglas Adams has a lot in common with Bob Baker and Dave Martin. Baker and Martin are also fond of barmy ideas and they also have gaps in their scientific knowledge (to be fair, Adams has gaps, Baker and Martin have yawning chasms!) However, Adams is able to bind his barmy ideas into a narrative with more success than Baker and Martin usually do. Adams's humour is, of course a major factor, but more critical are the wonderful characters he creates. The Captain is one of the most entertaining figures the programme has ever seen, with his bombastic manner and piratical appearance. Bruce Purchase brings the character wonderfully to life, his mellifluous voice making us feel not only the bluster, but the ruthlessness and genuine humanity underneath. The interplay between the Captain and Andrew Robertson's wonderful Mr Fibuli are a joy to behold and the Captain's genuine grief at Mr Fibuli's death is genuinely moving. The twist in the tale is that the real reason for destroying dozens of planets and trillions of lives is to ensure that Queen Xanxia will be immortal. The vanity and total amorality is well portrayed in a restrained (and therefore very effective) performance by Rosalind Lloyd. Some of the other performances are less effective, however. The Mentiads are merely adequate, which is a real shame- we never really see why the rest of the population have such a horror of them. The only really disappointing performance is that of Ralph Michael as Balaton- not so much bad acting as wrongly modulated.

Like Baker and Martin, Douglas Adams's scripts don't seem too concerned about whether they can be effectively realised on screen with the low budget that Doctor Who had. However, the story is effectively realised, for the most part- special mention must be given to the wonderful costume for the cyborg Captain. The direction by Pennant Roberts is good enough to make the scenes work, but could have been better- his skill seems to be concentrated on some of the more impressive set pieces- the battle between K9 and the Polyphase Avitron was clearly filmed in a hurry, but works reasonably well.

Strange as it may seem, Tom Baker does not go completely over the top in his performance- perhaps this is Roberts's greatest contribution as director! Baker is funny when the script calls for it, but also expresses outrage at the countless deaths caused by Zanak. Mary Tamm is growing into her role nicely. Romana's attitude to the Doctor has changed a great deal, but her outward behaviour has not, something put over very well by Tamm.

The Pirate Planet is funny, clever and imaginative, which more than compensates for its flaws.

NEXT: The Stones of Blood

Monday, 27 April 2009

The Ribos Operation

And so, we move on to the 'Key to Time' season, where the Doctor has to collect all 6 parts of the titular McGuffin to save the universe from chaos. The first story is another of Robert Holmes’s. I was disappointed, somewhat, with The Sun Makers, but any thought that Homes was losing his touch was quickly dismissed by this utterly fantastic story . It is not what you would call a sci-fi plot- Garron and Unstoffe try to con the deposed Levithian monarch the Graff Vynda-K into buying the planet Ribos, which is at a mediæval level of development. It could quite easily have been them selling an island to a dodgy millionaire. The plot is very well constructed and engaging throughout, but Holmes doesn’t stop there. Holmes makes Ribos a real planet, whose eccentric orbit has led to the inhabitants worshipping fire gods and ice gods. We are efficiently given the state of interstellar politics with the Graff’s situation and Holmes’s gift for making up evocative words is well used here- with ‘Pontonese starships’, ‘mercenaries from Schlangi’ and the like. We are dropped into a time and place that seems instantly real. The dialogue is simply gorgeous with almost every line being quotable. Holmes’s script ranges from genuinely hilarious comedy to tragedy with consummate skill.

Then, of course there is the characterisation, in which Holmes outdoes himself and is aided by a truly superlative cast. First and foremost, there is Iain Cuthbertson as Garron, truly one of the best guest performances the programme has ever seen. Cuthbertson is utterly electrifying throughout and it is testament to his extraordinary skill that Garron’s impersonation of a planetary estate agent is thoroughly convincing while being obvious as an impersonation to the viewer. Cuthbertson is generous enough not to steal scenes from the brilliant Nigel Plaskitt as Unstoffe, making this perhaps the greatest Robert Holmes double act of all time. Then there is Paul Seed as the Graff Vynda-K who is written as a genuinely frightening tyrant by Holmes. He is clearly a man of honour, but that does not mean he would not kill an unarmed innocent if it suited his purpose. The interplay between him and his confidante Sholakh is so well written that we genuinely feel the Graff’s grief at his friend’s death. Seed and Robert Keegan are thoroughly convincing as the pair. Binro the Heretic is one of the many examples of Holmes refusing to make incidental characters boring. Binro is the Ribosian equivalent of Galileo (with a bit of Thomas Digges thrown in) and the scene where Unstoffe confirms Binro’s theories and validates his life is very touching- Timothy Bateson’s performance as Binro is truly special. Even Prentis Hancock works well, his limited role playing to his few strengths as an actor.

The story is beautifully shot with George Spenton-Foster working wonders behind the camera. The production design is first rate, with great sets (believe it or not, mostly the same set, redressed!) and costumes. The lighting is subtle and atmospheric, especially the wonderful candle-lit catacombs. Tom Baker’s performance is note-perfect throughout, especially scenes he shares with Cuthbertson. Then there is the new regular, the glacially gorgeous Mary Tamm as Romana. The Doctor/ Romana dynamic is one that the programme has not had before- Romana is truly the Doctor’s equal. Their interplay is beautifully written and acted and great to watch. The stage for the season is set with a great scene written by Anthony Read, where the White Guardian gives the Doctor his task. I have a few problems with this rather dualistic theological view of the Doctor Who universe, but the presentation of this figure, of an elderly man sipping Chartreuse is an inspired view of omnipotence.

There are few Doctor Who stories that offer the viewer so much- a great start to the season.

NEXT: The Pirate Planet

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Invasion of Time

The Invasion of Time is a sequel to the wonderful Deadly Assassin- indeed, parts of the story will not make sense unless the viewer has seen the 1976 story. It is, therefore, wonderful that the script aspires to the same degree of sophistication as its predecessor. The Deadly Assassin showed the Time Lords at the nadir of their civilisation, but this story suggests that Gallifrey is in the process of undergoing something of a renaissance. The Time Lords are more aware of their past and the older Time Lords have a dignity that they lacked earlier. However, it is clear that since the Doctor’s defeat of the Master, Gallifrey is in something of a constitutional crisis, with the president-elect (the Doctor himself) being absent and Cardinal Borusa having risen to the rank of Chancellor and being the de-facto president. Into this situation, the Doctor returns to claim the Presidency, but this is a very different Doctor than what we are used to. The story opens with the Doctor making a pact with some unseen aliens and deliberately keeping Leela in the dark. Upon his arrival on Gallifrey, he seems arrogant and power-mad and further surprises us by banishing Leela from the Capitol. However, we soon discover that the Doctor is actually trying to entrap the alien Vardans- but, of course, there is one thing he overlooked.

The script by David Agnew (actually Graham Williams and Anthony Read) is very politically astute. This incarnation of Borusa is recognisable as the character in The Deadly Assassin, but the academic has become a creature of politics. He is brilliantly portrayed just as much as a high-ranking civil servant as a politician, which leads to a fascinating dynamic between him and the Doctor. The story depicts the invasion actually succeeding, with portrayals of concomitant effects such as insurgency (Leela and the outcasts organising a rebellion) and collaboration (Castellan Kellner). The characterisation is well suited to this and the cast is superb. John Arnatt is fantastic as Borusa, injecting a note of ‘sinister Sir Humphrey’ into the mix. Milton Johns gives a very skilful performance as Kellner- it would have been easy to make him simply an obsequious toady. This is also one of Tom Baker’s best performances - his portrayal of the seemingly power-mad Doctor is genuinely disquieting. This depiction of the Doctor brings up something very important about the way we view the character- the audience implicitly trusts the Doctor, as does Leela in the story and it is this which fascinates us, rather than repels us in the story when it seems that our favourite Time Lord has turned traitor.

Visually, the story is well made, with some very good model shots. Director Gerald Blake is not the most exciting director, but he does, on occasion, know how to use shots well and how to marshal actors. Of special note is the Doctor’s induction as President, wonderfully shot and edited, with Dudley Simpson showing that he can still write an evocative score when he tries. However, the lighting is again there for no other reason to make objects visible. It is unfortunate that this story follows from The Deadly Assassin, directed as it was by David Maloney, one of the best directors the programme ever had, which amplifies the lack of decent ‘cinematography’ in this story.

There are some significant flaws in the story, however. The reveal of the Sontarans as the real villains is a real shock moment in the story and is fantastically done. Unfortunately, it also results in the last two episodes being mainly a runaround in the TARDIS, followed by the Doctor shooting at them to make them disappear- a severe disappointment after the sophistication of the first four episodes. Derek Deadman puts in a good performance as lead Sontaran Stor- despite what has been written by others, Deadman’s accent is not distracting, just not the Received Pronunciation we are used to. It certainly isn’t Cockney, more a relaxed Estuary English. However, the make-up for the Sontarans is disappointing, nothing like as effective as the versions in The Time Warrior or The Sontaran Experiment. The Vardans look like Bacofoil Christmas decorations before they materialise and they are flatly performed, the only really disappointing performances in the story. Then there is Leela’s departure. Louise Jameson is a very gifted actress and she never failed to put in an arresting performance. Her opting to stay behind on Gallifrey with Andred is unconvincing- if there would have been anyone for her to randomly fall in love with, it would surely have been Nesbin, who she spent more time with and had more in common with (if this story had been made today, however, she’d probably have paired off with Rodan!).

Overall, however, this story has a great deal to commend it, despite its shortcomings.

NEXT: The Ribos Operation

Monday, 20 April 2009


The Doctor Who production team must have had a slight masochistic tendency which made them repeatedly commission scripts from Bob Baker and Dave Martin. Many of their contributions call for production values wholly unreasonable for the programme and the subsequent failure draws attention to some of the failures in plotting. This really comes to a head in Underworld. This is one of those stories that is remembered by no-one except hardcore Doctor Who fans and has a pretty dismal reputation, so I was not looking forward to watching it.

However, I must say that episode one was actually quite good. We are treated to some of the best model shots the programme has had so far, with some interesting direction from Norman Stewart. There are memorable scenes such as the spacecraft flying through a gas nebula and then attracting asteroids to form a new planet. It seems that the Baker/Martin propensity for intriguing, if barmy ideas has finally translated well to the screen. However, from the moment in episode two when we see the ‘trogs’ running around a badly superimposed ‘sky-fall’ the story collapses like a meringue under custard. The failure is largely a production failure- for whatever reason (probably budgetary) the production team decided to render the caves of the planet by using CSO. One of the problems with CSO is that it relies on the camera being static for it to work- no tracking, panning, zooming or even wobbling. Another problem is that it is very difficult to light the scenes atmospherically as the lighting of the actors often contrasts considerably with the lighting of the backgrounds making them jarringly stand out from the backgrounds. All this results in a large proportion of the story being visually uninteresting at best and downright amateurish at worst. This is a pity, as a few of the scenes that do not rely on CSO are rather well shot and lit, especially the chamber of the Oracle. The shield guns are actually quite cool and the effect used for their beam is actually quite good. However, there is little else to commend it, visually- there is the ludicrous scene of the Doctor, Leela and Idas float in zero gravity along a shaft accompanied by lift muzak and what pass for monsters in this story- in the service of the Oracle, the Seers have become fully robotic. They take off their masks to reveal- two giant sponge fingers!

The script is mercilessly padded, which doesn’t help when there are no flashy visuals to distract from it. Of course, it is ‘cleverly’ based on the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece (with other aspects of Greek Myth thrown in – P7E…Persephone- geddit?) and even if you were one of the 8 people who missed the parallels, don’t worry, the Doctor explains them at the end, if you make it that far. There are nice ideas, such as the Minyans being the reason why the Time Lords no longer intervene and the endless regeneration of the R1C crew, but there is little in this story that was not explored infinitely better in The Face of Evil. There is, of course, the complete lack of scientific knowledge that all Baker/Martin scripts have and strange things such as the P7E Minyans eating rock. The characterisation is basic and poorly thought out. ‘The Quest is the Quest’ as we are told ad nauseum, so it should be something which is so ingrained in the R1C crew that it should affect every fibre of their being. When they meet the slaves, they are not overjoyed at meeting their kin, or appalled at their degradation, they are simply ignored. The P7E trogs are also underwritten. There are some nice performances from the R1C crew, but the P7E people are largely forgettable. Tom Baker seems not to care about his performance, which is understandable, but doesn't exactly help matters. Louise Jameson is wonderful as ever, though.

In conclusion it is only the fun first episode that stops this story from being the most boring, uninspiring story ever broadcast under the Doctor Who banner- and there can be nothing that recommends a Doctor Who story less.

NEXT: The Invasion of Time

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Sun Makers

The first time I saw this story was at the Doctor Who Society at university. It was my first meeting and we were promised a classic. I never went to another. Since then, I have been baffled at the acclaim accorded to this story. It has been lauded as a 'clever satire', presumably by the same people who call The Curse of Peladon an allegory.

Robert Holmes starts by introducing some intriguing concepts- Pluto being terraformed and six artificial suns orbiting it- and then doesn't deliver on them. There is, in fact, no reason for the story not to have been set on Earth and we don't even get to see these artificial suns- a bit of a problem in a story called The Sun Makers. The idea of PCM, the anxiety inducing gas that is pumped into the atmosphere is a nice one, but is nothing like as fully explored in the script as it should be. We are then left with the basic story which has, strangely, been trumpeted as being about the tax system but seems to me to be a story about a populace living under authoritarian rule- call me crazy, but I find subduing a population with psychoactive chemicals in the air and making people who ask too many questions 'disappear' a slightly more serious abuse of human rights than people being charged too much for goods and services. I will not talk about the morality of a successful television writer moaning about his tax return- if I can overlook Don Houghton's appallingly rose-tinted view of Mao Zedong, I can easily overlook this. However, the tax satire aspect of the story is very badly done. There is the obvious point that the oppressive regime is a corporation, not a government. The only parallel to taxation that can be drawn is that of taxation prior to the industrial revolution- hardly satirical. There are so many aspects of the modern system of taxation that could have been examined- the way that trying to tax the rich means that they invariably find ways of avoiding it; the accountability that the tax levying authority has to the taxpayer and so on. Apart from the line 'probably too many accountants in the government' none of this is really addressed. There are no departments that swallow up money like a black hole and the jabs at bureaucracy are feeble. There are some reasonably amusing one liners, but a guard called the Inner Retinue and a 'P45 Corridor' do not make up for the lack of thought behind the story. Holmes's usual gift for characterisation seems to be absent, with characters either being stock reactive types or gross caricatures. Mandrell has signs of being interesting, but he abruptly changes personality half-way through, showing that this must have been an accident. The ending of the story is rushed and unconvincing.

Visually, the story is utterly dull. The set design is tepid and Pennant Roberts has no aptitude for action scenes. He does try to make some scenes interesting, such as having conversations between characters occurring on different levels. The costuming is either dull or, in the case of Gatherer Hade, silly. The lighting design seems to have only one aim, to make objects visible- these floodlit sets would not have been tolerated by the likes of David Maloney and Douglas Camfield.

The actors do they best they can with the script. William Simons gives Mandrell a real presence (and is seemingly the only non-middle class person on the planet!) and Richard Leech makes Hade interesting to watch, if not particularly subtle. Henry Woolf's performance as the Collector, however, is too comedic and his nasal voice is highly irritating. Tom Baker seems to be improvising half the time in a highly erratic performance and it is left to Louise Jameson to provide the only truly outstanding contribution. This is also K9's first proper outing and he is interestingly used exactly like a real dog- to attack and follow 'scents'.

This is, in short, eminently skippable. I certainly will do so, in future.

NEXT: Underworld

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Image of the Fendahl

One thing I have noticed in Chris Boucher's Doctor Who stories is that their story lines are very rarely original. Another thing I have noticed is that Boucher does not let that stop him from weaving a thoroughly absorbing, intelligent piece of television out of well-worn sci-fi staples. The obvious antecedent to this story is The Dæmons, but Boucher's script is far more coherent and intelligent than 'Guy Leopold's. Nigel Kneale is also a big influence- the basic story has similarities with Quatermass and the Pit, whereas the setting is very similar to The Stone Tape. However, Boucher makes this story his own and does it by playing with the structure of a Doctor Who story. In many other stories, the Doctor has to stop blinkered scientists from meddling with forces they do not fully comprehend. The fact that the Doctor is there to warn them makes the blinkered scientists responsible for the havoc they unleash. In this story, the Doctor and his companion are largely detached from the driving forces behind the problem. Apart from one short scene, the scientists are left to their own devices. In doing this Boucher subtly shows us that the scientists are merely pawns- as are we all- and even the Doctor could not have stopped the discovery of the skull and the coming of the Fendahleen. The Doctor, indeed, spends most of his time with the secondary protagonists, Mother Tyler and her grandson Jack. These country types are not belittled for their superstition, but respected for their insight into the problem.

Amid all this, Boucher still manages to write great characters and wonderful dialogue- 'You must think my head zips up the back' is one of my favourite lines in anything ever. The performances are great, with Daphne Heard making a wonderful Mother Tyler. Dennis Lill and Scott Fredericks are great as Fendelman and Stael. Wanda Ventham is very effective as Thea Ransome and Colby is brilliantly portrayed by Edward Arthur as the 'cheeky chappie' scientist. Unlike previous attempts at this sort of character, the story realises that they can be annoying in a crisis. Tom Baker gives one of his best performances as the Doctor- perhaps director George Spenton Foster knew how to channel the Baker boggle. Louise Jameson is wonderful as ever.

The direction is very effective, with great use made of night-shoots and very moody sets which are very effectively lit. the special effects work well- the Fendahleen could be more mobile, but they look fantastic. A small annoyance is the painted on eyes of Thea when she becomes the Fendahl Core- there is no special effect reason for them. Perhaps Wanda Ventham didn't like contacts.

This is a hugely enjoyable story from one of Doctor Who's most accomplished writers.

NEXT: The Sun Makers

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Invisible Enemy

The Invisible Enemy seems at first to be a run-of-the-mill Doctor Who story. However, as it goes on, it sabotages itself in ways that few other stories have ever done. Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s script is almost a caricature of a typical Baker & Martin story - barmy, sometimes wonderful ideas that are never properly thought through and a level of understanding of basic science that makes Kit Pedler look like Ben Goldacre. The idea of an intelligent virus trying to propagate itself is an intriguing one and the switching of the arena from an external to an internal and back again should work dynamically. However, their lack of thought in realising this in script form is obvious. Baker and Martin seem not to know what a virus actually is, which makes the virus’s plan seem confusing. The ‘Kilbracken process’ clones feel the pain of their external selves, which is nonsense. Of course, they should have also been naked when they were created (although I’ll bet that this wouldn’t have occurred so quickly to fans if Leela had not been one of them!) Most tellingly of all, Baker and Martin seem confused as to whether the clones journey into the Doctor’s brain literally or figuratively. We have phagocytes and neural arches, but we also have a literal ‘mind-brain’ barrier, a concept which is mentioned a few times, but never properly explained or explored. This is very sloppy thinking and I haven’t even mentioned such basic things as how Professor Marius finds the microscopic clones, how he can avoid injecting air into the Doctor without squirting the clones out and how the clones breathe. The characterisation is practically non-existent and there is some very clunky dialogue.

This need not have damned the story. The lack of characterisation is made up for by some nice performances- I like Frederick Jaeger’s portrayal of Marius and Michael Sheard is always worth watching. The regulars work wonders with the script- Leela in particular is written either as a parody of her usual self or just as a figure saying dialogue. However, the script is only part of the problem. The set design by Barry Newberry is rather good throughout and the model are sometimes truly wonderful, especially the shot of the shuttle flying over Titan. The realisation of the infection, however, looks like a candle has exploded in the actors’ faces. Further cracks start to show in the journey inside the Doctor’s body. Newberry just about manages to win the successful battle against the inherent ludicrousness of this element. Then, we see the Virus grown to macroscopic size. Nothing that I had read about this effect fully prepared me for the awfulness of this monster. This is the worst monster to ever take up screen time in the programme. There are brief shots where the dinosaurs in Invasion of the Dinosaurs and the Myrka in Warriors of the Deep are convincing enough for the viewer to forget their awfulness. There is not one interlaced field in this story in which the Virus is anything other than a poorly constructed, wobbling embarrassment. It drains the story of any drama or intrigue that the story could have had and pulls the viewer completely out of the experience.

Of course, what this story is primarily famous for is the introduction of K9 and, it has to be said, he is a very welcome addition to this story and is constantly watchable in what would otherwise be little more than an exercise in audience tolerance.

NEXT: Image of the Fendahl

Monday, 6 April 2009

Horror of Fang Rock

Horror of Fang Rock was speed-written to replace another story, but this far from obvious in the finished story. The story is a simple one; if you think about it, it comes close to the base-under siege stories that the Troughton era had an embarrassment of. However, Terrence Dicks paces the story admirably well, creating a good deal of tension in what is still a very unnerving story. He peoples the script with a reasonably comprehensive representation of early 20th century society and sets them in motion against a monster in the confined environment of a lighthouse. These characters are more skilfully drawn than this description indicates and Dicks gives them unshowy, yet very effective dialogue and the characterisation is expertly done. We even get to see Reuben’s ‘saucy postcard’ collection, a surprising but very welcome (plot and character-wise, obviously!) development. This story has a particular effect on me, as I read Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Gibson at an early age and was terrified to find out, shortly afterwards, that it was based on a true story.

The design work is outstanding- the dark, fog-shrouded environment is brilliantly evocative and we never lose the impression that we are in a lighthouse. The period detail is as excellent as we have come to expect from BBC costume dramas. Paddy Russell directs with great atmosphere- the story is set entirely in one night and the atmosphere is like one of a primal nightmare. There is a very effective shot when we get a momentary glimpse of part of Ben’s dissected body, which is shocking without being gratuitous. The special effects are simple and all the more effective for it. The Rutan, which is basically realised as a luminous green balloon, is lit and voiced in a way to make us believe in it as an alien horror.

The performances are very well judged. Colin Douglas is fantastic as Reuben, making him solidly trustworthy as a human and chilling as a Rutan- his soulless grin as he is about to kill is terrifying. Annette Woolette is just the right degree of annoying as Adelaide and Lord Palmerdale and Skinsdale are well portrayed by Sean Caffrey and Alan Rowe. However, the best performance in the story is that of Louise Jameson. Leela is never better than in this story, being brave, uninhibited (she actually starts undressing in front of Vince) and eager to learn. The scene where she taunts the dying Rutan is awesome and Louise Jameson gives one of the best performances by a regular the programme has ever seen. Tom Baker is mesmerising throughout, although it is clear Paddy Russell is keeping him on a very long leash!

The story has few flaws, the only one worth mentioning being Tom Baker’s line about ‘…the chameleon factor, sometimes called lycanthropy…’. Not only does Baker mispronounce chameleon, most people know that that is not the definition of lycanthropy. This line illustrates some of the possible hazards of using technobabble- someone might recognise one of the long words that have been misused and what may be an obscure word or phrase now, might not be so in the future. This does not stop this story from being a highly enjoyable 100 minutes.

NEXT: The Invisible Enemy

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Talons of Weng-Chiang

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is the epitome of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. It takes some very familiar source material and weaves it into something that is fresh and invigorating. It is not surprising that this story has come as close to universal acclaim as any Doctor Who story has ever done. There are many reasons for this, but the most important has to be Robert Holmes’s script. Holmes takes from The Phantom of the Opera, Fu Manchu and Jack the Ripper, wraps it up in Holmesian mystery (of the Sherlock kind) and gives it that unique Doctor Who touch. The story is well constructed with masterful creations such as Mr Sin a deranged cyborg with the cerebral cortex of a pig, the dragon that shoots laser beams from its eyes etc. Holmes manages to make practically every speaking role a character in their own right, from the ghoul who finds Buller’s corpse, to the fantastic supporting roles of Jago and Litefoot. The dialogue throughout is great, from Jago’s alliterative declamation to Litefoot’s soothing confidence. This is helped by one of the finest guest casts that the programme has ever had. Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter effortlessly bring Jago and Litefoot to life and, just as every speaking role is written memorably, every part, no matter how small is excellently performed. On the villainous side, John Bennet makes Li H'sen Chang a figure of menace, but with great dignity and humanity and Michael Spice conveys the insanity of Weng-Chiang/ Magnus Greel very well. The Doctor is essentially providing his own spin on Sherlock Holmes, with Jago and Litefoot playing Watson. This is a masterful performance by Baker and he is ably supported by a very good reading of the Eliza Doolittle aspect of Leela’s character by the wonderful Louise Jameson.

This was, sadly, David Maloney’s final Doctor Who and he manages to maintain his usual excellence. The location scenes are shot with great atmosphere and the studio scenes are lit with great care. Maloney uses such methods as POV shots and hand-held ‘interview’ shots to subtle, but great effect. The re-creation of Victorian London was something the BBC costume and design departments could do in their sleep and their consummate excellence in this field supports the production tremendously.

Flaws are few and far between- there is some padding, such as the chase of Greel in the theatre, but it is by no means boring. Of course, one question that must be addressed is the presentation of the Chinese in the story. The villainous Tongs running amok in London are taken straight from Sax Roemer’s Fu Manchu stories, hardly the most racially sensitive stories and all of the Chinese characters are villainous to some degree or another . However the story never crosses over into racism and any insensitive comments about the Chinese are made by characters completely in keeping with the prejudices of their time. There is also the question of John Bennet’s casting as Li H'sen Chang. As said before, his performance is excellent, and stays on the right side of stereotypical. However, this was probably the last time the BBC would have got away with putting an actor in ‘yellowface’ and is, rightly, seen as being unacceptable now. The make-up at least tries to be more realistic than the simple taping back of eyes that would have been used in bygone years and gives Chang proper epicanthic folds- however, you would have to be extremely naïve nowadays to find it completely convincing.

There is one very important thing I have not mentioned- this story is great, great fun from start to finish, which is probably the best recommendation of all.

NEXT: Horror of Fang Rock

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Robots of Death

The Robots of Death is a simple story regarding a group of robots who murder their masters and a hunt for the person behind their revolt. This is, of course, a well-worn staple of sci-fi literature and that one line description does not sound immediately appealing. However, as in the Pertwee story, The Curse of Peladon, the story is a triumphant success because practically everything about it is honed to perfection. First and foremost is Chris Boucher’s script. In the field of world-building, Boucher is every bit as accomplished as Robert Holmes; Boucher presents us with a culture where society is so reliant on robots that if that faith was threatened, society would collapse. This is made immediately obvious by the human crew of the sand miner. They are the equivalent of prospectors on a mysterious and dangerous New World- yet we see them idly sipping drinks and taking massages as if they were in an exclusive health resort. Robots are so much part of the society that even people like this can live in luxury. This society produces its own modes of behaviour and neuroses, typified by Robophobia, where humans are unnerved by the robots’ lack of body language. Again, Boucher’s characterisation transcends simple stereotypes, especially welcome as a story such as this usually falls back on simple stereotypes. Even a relatively minor character like Zilda is given an intriguing back-story, where the viewer is left to fill in the gaps themselves. Boucher gives all his characters good dialogue throughout.

This would be praiseworthy enough, but then there is the gorgeous design work. The costuming, set design and, particularly, the beautiful robots themselves are flawlessly realised. The design manages to flawlessly blend Art Nouveau and Art Deco from everything to the design of the Sandminer to the font used for the Laserson logo. Michael E Briant obviously rejoiced in being given such good material to work with and he directs even simple scenes with an unshowy flair- note that the establishing model shot is punctuated by falling rocks. The lighting is wonderful, creating evocative moods and getting just the right effects and reflections off the opulent design.

The performances are wonderful, working well with Boucher’s characterisation. It says a lot that the weakest performance (Tania Rogers as Zilda) would have been seen as well above average in several other stories I could mention. The main robot performers, Gregory de Polnay as D84 and Miles Fothergill as SV7 put in excellent jobs- we never believe that these are just men with masks on. Best of all are Russell Hunter as Uvanov and Pamela Salem as Toos, especially towards the end of the story where they give their own little spin on the Doctor/Companion dynamic. Speaking of which, it is clear that Louise Jameson and Tom Baker clearly had a chemistry as strong as Baker had with Sladen and their performances are simply gorgeous.

This is a wonderful and intelligent story, well worth a look.

Next: The Talons of Weng-Chiang