Monday, 30 March 2009

The Face of Evil

It’s all change for Doctor Who with Chris Boucher’s debut script for the story. The Doctor must deal with the consequences of a mistake he made early in his regeneration when a computer belonging to a human survey mission he repaired has developed a multiple personality disorder and is regarded as a god by the descendants of the mission- with the Doctor’s very face regarded as the face of the Evil One.

Boucher takes a well-worn sci-fi trope and makes it gripping because of the degree of thought that has gone into the writing. The development of the culture of the Sevateem and Tesh is realistic and the portrayal of Xoanon, the mad computer, is very well portrayed- note that the Sevateem sign to ward off evil has developed from the safety check of a space-suit. The environment that Xoanon has created for its followers follows a certain insane logic. A story of this type requires stereotypical characters, yet Boucher manages to make the characters seem real and the dialogue is rich with symbolism without being obvious- the pastiche of biblical language is pitched just right. Most impressively, the story does not end with all being well- there are still clear cultural barriers between the Tesh and Sevateem and much work still needs to be done (compare with The Savages from Season 3).

The writing helps the guest performances become genuinely interesting. Neeva is the shaman of Xoanon, yet, because the society has been so completely moulded by Xoanon, Neeva has nothing beyond his faith, no privileged position that demands that he maintain this position for his own ends. When Neeva realises the truth about Xoanon, he is only too willing to destroy Xoanon. David Garfield rightly plays Neeva as being just as much a victim as the other Sevateem- he is not a merely futuristic version of Tlotoxl from The Aztecs. Leslie Schofield does great work as ‘the devious Calib’ and it is welcome that he is allowed to survive the events of the story. The portrayal of Xoanon is first rate, with the multiple voices wonderfully portraying the madness, despair and anger of the computer).

The story is sound visually, although the jungle sets could have been better. The ‘holy of holies’ that is Xoanon’s control centre is brilliantly realised and the pallor of the Tesh contrasts well with the tanned Sevateem, as their clinical domain contrasts with the Sevateem’s tribal home. Pennant Roberts does some solid work behind the camera, although it is never spectacular

This is the debut story for Leela and Louise Jameson puts in a phenomenal performance, making her intuitive, intelligent and sympathetic, yet also brutal. It is clear from Tom Baker’s great performance in this story that this Doctor does not react well to being alone and it is clear that a Pygmalion type of relationship is to come.

This is a little gem and a great start for Leela.

NEXT: The Robots of Death

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Deadly Assassin

The Deadly Assassin is, quite simply, one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever made. Very few Doctor Who stories work successfully on so many levels. It is a thriller, a work of televisual surrealism, a political drama, a tale of the decline, fall and possible resurrection of a great civilisation. Most of all, it manages to be Doctor Who in every fibre of its being, whilst being unlike any other story- something which hadn’t happened since the Hartnell era.

Robert Holmes’s script is taut, yet is a thoroughly convincing portrait of the society of Gallifrey. A good deal on contemporary criticism of the story concerned its discontinuity with previous portrayals of the Time Lords. These are not the austere gods of The War Games, nor the technocrats of The Three Doctors. These are Time Lords with bad hips, old buffers who have ‘turned away from the barren road of technology’ whose great scientific achievements have become myth. The society of the Time Lords is led by a President and Chancellor, but other iconography is reminiscent of the Vatican. The Time Lords are, therefore, priests who have forgotten that they were once the very gods they served. However, there is still clearly a great deal of power on Gallifrey- mentions are made of a ‘Celestial Intervention Agency’ and the character of Borusa clearly knows more than he is telling. This world-building and political intrigue is bolstered by some very effective dialogue, making this a thoroughly believable reading of Gallifrey.

I have noted many times my admiration of David Maloney as a director and in this story, he really outdoes himself. From the very start of the story, with its scrolling text narrated by the Doctor, he sets out to make this story different. The scenes on Gallifrey have a foggy, funereal atmosphere and his shots are thoroughly effective throughout. Use of flashbacks and flash-forwards and interesting editing are used sparingly and effectively throughout. Then there are the scenes set in the Matrix (Holmes's estate should really sue the Wachowski brothers!) which is a fantastic array of surreal and frightening images, ranging from scenes inspired by Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, common phobias of injections and clowns, and the purely visceral, such as when the Doctor steps on a giant rotting egg and hears a ghostly squawk. Indeed, parts of this episode are like the Doctor Who equivalent of Eraserhead! This leads to a very tense face-off between him and his assailant, which takes up most of part three. These sequences are breathtaking in an already visually stunning story. The production values are impressive throughout- even the rather immobile mask used for the Master works reasonably well.

The performances are excellent across the board, with special mention being given to Angus MacKay as Borusa. This is the only story where the Doctor is not given a companion and Tom Baker manages to deal excellently with all aspects of the story, both dark and humorous. This is truly one of the all-time great stories- so what are you waiting for?

NEXT: The Face of Evil

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Hand of Fear

When the Doctor and Sarah land in a quarry, they find themselves in the middle of an explosion which releases a stone hand that has been entombed in the rock since the Jurassic. It is the hand of Eldrad, a member of the Kastrian race. As Eldrad is reconstructed, the Doctor decides to help- but is Eldrad to be trusted?

Bob Baker and Dave Martin return with an offering that has first draft written all over it. The basic storyline is not particularly great, but there is nothing wrong with it. However, the structure and plotting leave a good deal to be desired. I know that the story is called The Hand of Fear, but there is no reason for the titular manus to be the only manifestation of Eldrad for two episodes. Episode 2, in particular is mainly padding. Sarah attempts to put the hand in the core of the reactor only to be stopped. However, Driscoll then simply does exactly the same thing as Sarah did, this time successfully. This is particularly irksome as Episode 3 is actually very impressive and the female Eldrad deserved more screen time than just one and a bit episodes. She is one of the most intriguing antagonists that the programme has had, someone whose true motivations are, for the moment, clouded and we truly believe that Eldrad may not be truly villainous. If the events of the first two episodes had been condensed into one, this fascinating character would have been a far more effective focus for two episodes There is some truly memorable and mythic dialogue given to King Rokon and Kastria is a reasonably successful exercise in world building, but the dénouement of the story is seriously fumbled.

Perhaps it is unfortunate that Sarah is again possessed by the antagonist, as she was in The Masque of Mandragora. Again, Baker and Martin show their complete lack of awareness of radiation, making the same assumption they made in The Claws of Axos- apparently, all one has to do to escape a giant nuclear explosion is to drive away a few miles and duck. As this story was filmed in a real nuclear power station, one can imagine the guffaws that the script must have caused there.

The guest cast is mainly dull. Glyn Houston is quite effective as Professor Watson, and Rex Robinson is dependable as usual, but the rest of the humans are badly written and limply performed. What goes a long way to redeeming the story is Judith Paris as the female Eldrad. Her striking look and deep voice is combined with a very carefully judged performance, which towers over her fellow guest performers. It is a pity that the true Eldrad is Stephen Thorne again booming away under heavy makeup in a performance that, while it is by no means bad, is nothing like as skilful as Paris’s.

Visually, the story impresses. Lennie Mayne had a great eye for shots and some very effective location work is combined with great set design- the eerie crystalline Kastrian sets are very effective. Unfortunately, not even he could save the risible climax. Eldrad is defeated by tripping over the Doctor’s scarf and falling into a (very narrow) chasm. Even if this was not ineptly realised, it seems that Eldrad would have simply walked into the abyss anyway.

Of course, the most memorable thing about the story is that it is Sarah Jane’s last appearance as a companion. One thing that struck me in this marathon is that Sarah was actually less capable of taking care of herself in a crisis than Jo Grant was- Jo frequently used force in escaping from a crisis, whereas Sarah was more likely to scream for help. However, the performance of Elisabeth Sladen cannot be praised highly enough, particularly her interplay with Tom Baker. Sarah Jane always real, no matter what situation she was in, and it is not surprising that she is the companion that everyone remembers. Her leaving scene is wonderful, bursting with the unsaid and repressed feelings. The look on her face when she finds that the Doctor has not dropped her off in Croydon (actually, as we find out 30 years later, in Aberdeen!) is wonderful, speaking of annoyance, amusement and sadness.

This is another story of which it is impossible to give a clear thumbs up or thumbs down to. All that can be said that it has a good deal to offer.

NEXT: The Deadly Assassin

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Masque of Mandragora

Doctor Who returns to the historical with this story that takes place at the dawn of the Renaissance (or Early Modern Europe, to be more politically correct) and pits the Doctor against the malevolent Mandragora Helix, an entity that is trying to stymie the rebirth of European culture. With the Helix being a rather insubstantial threat, the struggle is personified by two human sides- the progressives, embodied in Duke Giuliano and the regressives, embodied by the astrologer Hieronymous and his Cult of Demnos. The story wholeheartedly takes the side of Giuliano, emphasising the need for science over superstition. Of course, there is some simplification of the viewpoints- very little of the new learning is actually described in the story; indeed, Giuliano is interrupted whilst trying to tell Sarah why it is obvious that the earth is a sphere (in fact, the spherical earth had been widely accepted nearly everywhere since the birth of Jesus). Nevertheless, the script, although oddly paced at times, manages to make this drive the story without being polemicist.

The characterisation is good, with some impressive performances backing it up. Gareth Armstrong makes Giuliano more than just a cypher (although his typical British pallor seems to indicate that the young Duke spends a lot of time indoors!) and is ably supported by the always excellent Tim Piggot-Smith. However, it is the baddies who are best served by the story. Norman Jones makes Hieronymous transcend his silly beard projecting a dark sense of menace throughout. Possibly even better is Jon Laurimore as Count Federico. Federico is not one of those looking backwards to the ’Dark Ages’ but is, in fact, the dark side of the Rennaisance itself. With Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Galileo came the Borgias and Federico is the ruthless, power-hungry despot that this period tended to produce. Laurimore exudes smug superiority like few other actors and his expressive performance and mellifluous voice are a very welcome addition. The characterisation of the regulars is given the interesting twist of Giuliano almost wanting to give the Doctor his patronage and him seeing Sarah both as someone to be educated and (for a short while) a potential love interest. The regulars play these roles with their usual aplomb.

Where the story really excels is in the visual department. One of the unsung heroes of Doctor Who is designer Barry Newbery and it is in this story that he really outdoes himself. This is one of the most beautiful Doctor Who stories ever broadcast, which has a lot to do with the sumptuous sets which are complemented by fantastic costume design. The lighting is very evocative and the whole is admirably directed by Rodney Bennet. The special effects probably cost nest to nothing, but are very effectively done. Of course, the fact that Portmeirion is used as the location might be a bit distracting for anyone who is familiar with The Prisoner, but the location meshes well with the studio scenes, which considerably lessens this. The new console room is beautifully designed too, a very welcome addition.

There are very few problems with this story- as said, the plotting could do with some tightening up and Dudley Simpson does show his limitations as a composer- a Geoffrey Burgon score would have been sublime. However, this remains an excellent and underrated story.

NEXT: The Hand of Fear

Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Seeds of Doom

It is interesting to look at this story after the previous one. The Brain of Morbius is about a mad scientist who wants to give the brain of a megalomaniac a new body, but it has very limited ambitions beyond this, both thematically and dramatically. The Seeds of Doom, on the other hand works on more levels than being simply the story about an alien plant that threatens all life on earth. It has long been a story I enjoy (and incidentally, the first episode was broadcast the day I was born!)

One of the most common criticisms of 6-parters is that they are frequently padded 4-parters (or even less). As commented by others, this story avoids this criticism by basically being a 2-parter followed by a 4-parter, and there is very little padding. As in the outstanding Pyramids of Mars, the story progresses believably without containing any plot points that are blatantly put in by the writer to move the plot along. The characterisation is superb. Scorby has far more depth than Doctor Who henchmen usually have and we have the brilliant character of Amelia Ducat, who seems like a Robert Holmesian incidental character, but actually fulfils important functions. Even the characters at the Antarctic base, although based on the usual stock base types in Doctor Who, are given enough characterful dialogue to make them transcend this. All of these characters are superbly played- John Challis is so good as Scorby that we very quickly forget Boycie. Best of all is Tony Beckley as Harrison Chase. He is portrayed as an environmentalist gone bad, bringing the portrayal of environmentalists to the precise opposite of what the likes of Professor Jones in The Green Death were, via the well intentioned, but misguided Sir Charles Grover of Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Beckley was a very underrated actor who, despite looking like the type of character actor who is limited in range, made all his portrayals different. There is not a hint of Camp Freddie in his brilliant performance.

Visually, the story is aided by the always outstanding Douglas Camfield. Camfield’s choice of shots is always inspired- mention must be made of the moment after Chase has been possessed by the Krynoid, which Camfield has the nerve to shoot in a way that makes it seem almost post-coital. The production values are excellent on the whole. The story is shot entirely on video, bar a few effects shots, and this gives the production a very unified style, with studio scenes meshing very well with location. The Krynoid creatures fail to convince in some shots, but this is a minority of shots. This is also one of the few stories from this period that does not have Dudley Simpson as a composer. Although Simpson did do some excellent work, Geoffrey Burgon is a much more gifted composer and his more subtle score here is a joy to listen to.

The Doctor is more violent and action-orientated than usual, but Baker’s great performance here makes this interpretation of the character similar to that on Pyramids of Mars. Both regulars are on great form in this story, one which is never less than entertaining and a must-see for all Doctor Who fans.

NEXT: The Masque of Mandragora

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Brain of Morbius

The Brain of Morbius is inspired by the Frankenstein story or, more precisely, the Frankenstein story as told in the 1931 James Whale/ Boris Karloff film. We have the scientist attempting to animate a creature he has created from dead body parts. We have the deformed monosyllabic henchman. The story takes place in a castle-like building which is introduces in a flash of lightning during a storm. This story is one which has been trumpeted as a ‘classic’ but, I must confess, it has never been a favourite of mine. The problem is that it is the sum of its parts- perhaps a bit less, certainly not more. It sets out to do a story of the creation of a body for the preserved brain of a Time Lord criminal, combined with a ‘guardians of the fountain of youth’ storyline, with the Sisterhood of Karn, and accomplishes that, but little more. It doesn't add a Doctor Who twist to the Frankenstein story, it pretty much is the Frankenstein story- a disappointment after the brilliance of Pyramids of Mars. There are a few musings on stagnation being the price of immortality and some excellent bits of dialogue, but the story, overall, has always seemed a bit functional and lightweight to me. This is not helped by the characterisation- Solon is written as a stock mad scientist, Morbius as the usual ranting megalomaniac, Condo as a very stereotypical ‘Igor’ and the sisterhood are basically stereotypical Vestal Virgins (an odd addition!).

There are, however, some aspects that compensate for this. Although Christopher Barry’s direction is rather flat, visually, there is some effective use of lighting. The design work is also very good, managing to draw inspiration from 1930s horror films without unimaginatively aping them. It is a pity that this story is so studio bound, as scenes where characters clunk into plastic rocks tend to undermine the suspension of disbelief. The costumes for the sisterhood are also imaginatively designed and the dynamism between the burning reds of the Sisterhood’s lair and the sepulchral greys and greens of Solon’s castle. The brain itself is brilliantly realised- I love the ‘speech membrane’ especially. However, there is one effect that jars with the tone of the whole series- Solon shooting Condo in the gut. However effective the result, there was no need to show the bloody wound exploding- an effect that I am surprised the BBC allowed to pass.

As far as the guest cast goes, I cannot speak highly enough of Philip Madoc. As I said before, Solon is written as a typical mad scientist, but Madoc’s excellent performance makes him a far more interesting character than written. His ad-libbed ‘pun’ is a very welcome bit of extra characterisation, making Solon appear more human. Condo is ludicrously written, but Colin Fay manages the impressive feat of making him both sympathetic and repulsive. The sisterhood, however, are less effective, coming across as a bunch of pretentious interpretive dancers, rather than the mental equals of the Time Lords. Only Cynthia Grenville as Maren (with some very effective old age makeup) conveys any authority. Michael Spice’s vocal performance as Morbius is very effective but, as said, the character is not well written and the scene where he is pursued over the edge of a cliff by the Sisterhood is hardly a great climax. The regulars are good as ever (although Elisabeth Sladen’s ‘blind’ acting is far from perfect).

Overall, this is a watchable, though by no means essential story.

NEXT: The Seeds of Doom

Monday, 16 March 2009

The Android Invasion

There are some impressive things about The Android Invasion. Barry Letts directs with great energy and the individual scenes work very well. The sequence where the android Sarah is unmasked and then sits up and shoots as the Doctor is very memorable. The design work is excellent, with the Kraals being successfully realised as a cross between a Sontaran and a Triceratops. There are also good guest performances, especially from Milton Johns as Crayford and the regulars put in good work- the chemistry between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen is so successful that it manages to save some scenes that would otherwise be execrable.

However, the story suffers from having one of the stupidest, most poorly thought out scripts the programme has ever seen. This is Terry Nation at his worst, a script formed of set pieces that are clumsily stitched together. This is exemplified in the scene where Sarah twists her ankle for no good reason apart from adding ten minutes to the story time. There are ludicrous elements such as the robot detector and although enough has been written about the plot holes by others, it’s important to take note of how blatant they are- Guy Crayford’s eye, the fact that there is no real need to build the village in the first place, the fact that there is still an invasion fleet heading for earth at the end of the story etc. For this story to work, one would have to have the short-term memory of a cabbage. As soon as one thinks of the story as a whole, the whole thing falls apart. Instead of killing the Doctor Styggron ties him to a war memorial and blows up the fake village for no reason. This looks good and is exciting, but makes no sense in story terms. The opening is memorable- unfortunately it is exactly the same opening used in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. This story is an insult to the intelligence, with all the inherent narrative value of a screensaver.

NEXT: The Brain of Morbius

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Pyramids of Mars

In doing this marathon, there are some stories I am encountering for the first time and others I am more familiar with to various degrees. There are a very few for which I have lost count how many times I have seen them and Pyramids of Mars definitely falls into this category. I love this story and want to have its babies.

One of the main reasons for this is the script, which is very well structured and believable. Because of the simplicity of the plot, it is easy to overlook the skill in the actual plotting. In journeying from point A to point B, in the plot, there is always something to see out of the window- the Doctor discovers the signal from Mars through a primitive radio telescope invented by Laurence Scarman. The small cast of characters are very well written- there are bonds of family and friendship between them that subtly make the events more real for the viewer. Also, this story manages to convey the alien in a way few others do. When Sutekh wants to know what planet the Doctor comes from, he asks for 'the binary location from galactic centre' as 'Names mean nothing'.

The guest cast are uniformally excellent, but there is one who stands out (no pun intended). Sutekh is a character created almost exclusively through voice, and what a voice it is! Gabriel Woolf makes Sutekh, for my money, the most awesomely powerful adversary the Doctor has ever faced. Hearing him intone 'Any further insolence and I shall shred your nervous system into a million fibres' is still chilling. Sutekh is utterly unforgettable, one of the greatest Doctor who baddies of all time. Bernard Archard is fantastic as the possessed Marcus Scarman and the wonderful Michael Sheard is almost heartbreaking as Laurence. The robot mummies look comical if one sees a clip, but they are genuinely chilling when seen in context in the story.

The emphasis on the alien leads to one of Tom Baker's finest performances as the Doctor. Here, for the first time since the Hartnell era, we truly see the Doctor as an alien with a human face. His rapport with Elisabeth Sladen makes this one of the finest performances from the regular cast. Paddy Russell directs with great dynamism and there are fantastic set pieces- the invisible force field, the poacher's death, Marcus Scarman expelling the bullet from his body. Good use of locations and some excellent set design are excellently blended together, with simple, yet very effective lighting and backed by one of Dudley Simpson's best scores.

The legend of the Mummy is taken and given a truly original spin with wit and intelligence. Yes, there are a few plot holes, but the story is so good, they can easily be ignored. This is a story that is not just worth watching, it should be watched and if I were to select one story as my absolute favourite, it would probably be this one.

NEXT: The Android Invasion

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Planet of Evil

Zeta Minor, a planet at the edge of the known universe, is the boundary between the universe and the universe of anti-matter. The Morestan scientist, Professor Sorenson believes he can use the anti-matter particles of Zeta Minor to provide energy for his dying civilisation. However, there is a sinister force at work on the planet…

Despite the obvious influence of Forbidden Planet and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (and the less obvious influence of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris) Planet of Evil adds a spin of its own to these sources. Louis Marks creates a planet that seems to have an intelligence of its own- the title, in fact, is a misnomer, but Planet of Self-Defence probably wouldn’t have been as catchy. The actual script is a mixture of the majestic with the commonplace- there is excellent dialogue, but it is oddly paced and the ending is a bit rubbish- in story terms, Sorenson has not really ‘earned’ the right to survive. The characterisation is also lacking in colour, with all supporting characters conforming to type.

Where this story excels is in its visualisation. The jungle set, especially the filmed one, is one of the best alien environments ever seen on television- the level of detail is astonishing and it honestly looks like a genuine location at times. This is contrasted with the Morestan space ship which, although sparse, do not look tacky. The full size set of the door to the ship is one of the few times in the programme that one actually believes that it is part of a space-ship, with a very tall structure with characters standing on two levels. David Maloney, one of my favourite directors on the programme, creates some very effective shots and is helped by having very effective lighting on all scenes, both film and video. The anti-matter monster is simply realised, but the effects it has on people are very memorable, with some gristly ‘freeze-dried’ corpses.

However, there are problems with the acting. As said, none of the characters are particularly well written and their eventual effectiveness depends on the actors. In the case of Frederick Jaeger and Ewen Solon, this is fine, both of them making their respective characters of Sorenson and Vishinsky convincing. However, there is the major problem of Prentis Hancock as Salamar. As I see it, Hancock is a bit-part actor who got very lucky and he is woefully out of his depth in a major supporting role. Even when he isn’t fluffing his lines (forgiveable in the Hartnell days, less so in the 70s, where they had more flexibility) he utterly fails to convince in any of the scenes he is in. Tom Baker and Lis Sladen are generally good, although Baker at times seems to be less than enthused by the story. Sladen is excellent throughout, despite being lumbered with an outfit that makes her look like a hillbilly’s fantasy.

This story is by no means a classic, but it is watchable and an effective shocker- but could easily have been a whole lot better.

NEXT: Pyramids of Mars

Monday, 9 March 2009

Terror of the Zygons

Tom Baker's second season begins with his first alien threat against contemporary Earth. The basic storyline is nothing we haven't seen before- the Zygons want to conquer the Earth and use their cyborg monster, the Skarasen, to help them accomplish this. There are some plot problems, as we shall see later. However, if there is one story that is genuinely a 'triumph of style over substance' it is this one.

The Zygons themselves are one of the best realised alien races the programme has ever had. A fantastically designed costume is seamlessly blended with make-up onto the faces of the actors. Even today, a Hollywood budget would only slightly improve on the look. As in The Claws of Axos, there is an organic spacecraft, but one which is far easier on the eyes and far more subtle and interesting. All this is helped by Douglas Camfield's great skill in selecting the shots and supervising editing- the first full reveal of a Zygon is brilliantly done. Camfield manages to make the programme more 'edgy'- there is a real sense of danger in scenes such as the Zygon Harry's escape. Much has been made of the believability of the Skarasen. The creature is realised through a mixture of puppetry and a few shots with stop-motion animation. Although the creature is not particularly convincing, it is mobile and quite well designed. The end, where it rises out of the Thames fails mostly because it combines film and video elements- there have been far worse special effects on the programme.

The script is quite good, if somewhat half-baked. Despite the fact that the very first line by a Scottish character is aboot haggis, characterisation is good, with some nice moments. There is some clunky info-dumping- Broton explains things to Harry for no good reason, and some rather unbelievable plot points- the removal of the bug from the inn only alerts UNIT to where the bug came from and Sarah stumbles into the tunnel to the spaceship after being left alone by the Zygons, who have fetched a step-ladder for her to reach it. Any thought that they did that deliberately is scotched when they angrily discover the tunnel open.

The performances throughout are first rate, from Lillias Walker's spooky performance as Sister Lamont to John Woodnutt's excellent Broton/ Duke of Forgill. Tom Baker's detached, yet playful performance further distances the Fourth Doctor's personality from his predecessor. It's sad to see Harry go as a regular- Ian Marter made him entertaining and convincing throughout. This is also the last we'll see of the Brig for a good long while and Nicholas Courtney works his usual magic.

Terror of the Zygons has its problems, but it is thoroughly entertaining throughout and highly recommended.

Next: Planet of Evil

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Revenge of the Cybermen

Of all the things I was hoping for more of, a Gerry Davis penned Cyberman story was not high on my list. Despite their ubiquity in the Troughton era, there was only one good story that featured the cyborgs (The Invasion) and Davis had nothing to do with it. Like Terry Nation, Davis had a tendency of recycling ideas, but at least Nation’s ideas were good. Things don’t look good for the story at the outset, with Revenge of the Cybermen starting off looking like a remake of The Wheel in Space, the very worst Cyberman story of the Troughton era. The story seems to indicate Davis’s sabbatical from the programme has given him time to think of a couple of new ideas. The Cybermen wish to destroy the planet Voga, a planet with very high gold deposits, a metal that is lethal to the Cybermen. The Vogans wish to be rid of the Cyber menace, but some wish to take offensive action, while others prefer to hide.

The fact that Davis has actually come up with a reasonably original storyline would be refreshing- if perusal of the original script didn't reveal that most of the innovations were the work of Robert Holmes. Beyond this, the actual plotting leaves a great deal to be desired. The Cybermen use the Doctor and the Nerva crew as ‘suicide bombers’ to take explosives to the centre of the planet. The reason why they don’t plant the bombs themselves is unclear. It can’t be because the gold content makes it impossible for the Cybermen to set foot on Voga, as some do, later on in the story. When they do, they are able to kill the entire Vogan army- who, for some reason, don’t use gold in any of the weapons that they deploy against the Cybermen, despite the fact that they use gold in everything else! Although their plan doesn’t have the Heath Robinson level of idiotic complexity that Davis usually gives them, the Cyber-scheme is still convoluted. Vorus’s plan is also ridiculous- why not just shoot down the Cybermen’s spaceship before they disembark? The characters are poorly defined and, even if it wasn’t for the many plot holes, the scene to scene plotting is very pedestrian.

To compensate for this, the story is very well designed, with some great sets and costumes and some fantastic location work at Wookey Hole. The makeup for the Vogans is very effective, actually making each of them look slightly different. Michael E Briant directs very well throughout- there are very effective scenes in part 1 when the TARDIS crew find Nerva full of diseased bodies and is helped by a cast that is so good that it elevates the mundane script into something watchable. The Vogans boast Kevin Stoney, David Collings and Michael Wisher, three excellent actors who manage to turn poorly defined ciphers into characters. Kelman is a stock traitor on paper, but Jeremy Wilkin makes him one of the smarmiest characters seen on the series. Unfortunately, the Cybermen themselves are less successful- so poorly defined that they could be any set of alien thugs. The performance of Christopher Robbie as the Cyberleader is completely off- a petulant, camp, silver gimp. The regulars are great, thanks to some great character dialogue by Robert Holmes- if there’s one thing worth watching the story for, it is the ‘Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!’ scene.

This is the best Cyberman story that Gerry Davis wrote. However, that is the faintest that faint praise can be. And the cybermats are still rubbish.

NEXT: Terror of the Zygons

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Genesis of the Daleks

Genesis of the Daleks has been an ‘all-time-classic’ since it was first broadcast and, like some other all-time-classics it has been re-evaluated and found wanting since then. I will, therefore, try to be as fair as I can to a story that I have, to be honest, seen more than once before.

It is impossible to talk about the merits of the story without talking of the merits of Terry Nation as a writer. He was great with the basic ideas but less successful at other things- such as plotting and dialogue. Consider the ‘one-line pitch’ for the story:

The Doctor is sent back in time to the moment of the Daleks’ creation on Skaro, which has a society very reminiscent of the Nazis and meets their creator, Davros, a crippled genius who, disturbingly, uses a wheelchair shaped like the lower half of a Dalek.

There are so many possibilities, so many ways that this storyline could be executed. Nation effectively makes the similarity between the Nazis and the Daleks more explicit than ever before- we are told that the Kaled race ‘must be kept pure’ and that the Daleks are, in fact the ultimate expression of eugenics. Unfortunately, Nation again makes the story one of captures, escapes, recaptures and a few cliffhangers with terrible conclusions. We have many poorly thought out details such as a 100 year long war of attrition between two cities that have secret passages to each other that both sides know about. Most critically, we are left unsure of what it is, exactly, the Doctor accomplished. Apart from Davros, characterisation is virtually non-existent and Nation’s dialogue ranges from the functional to the bloody awful (‘She is a Norm! She must be killed!’) Nation resorts to some really egregious padding to bulk the story to a six episode length especially towards the end, where the Doctor loses the Time Ring and then has to destroy the tape recording of Dalek defeats.

All this seems to irretrievably damn the story. However, the story has the advantage of practically every other aspect of its realisation being nothing less than first rate. The guest performances are never less than excellent- for example, Ronson and Gharman are, essentially the same character on paper, but the performances by James Garbutt and Dennis Chinnery more than compensate for this. Peter Miles is utterly compelling as Davros’s right hand man (or should that be left hand man?) Nyder. Then there is the stunning direction. David Maloney is one of the best directors ever to work in Doctor Who and his mastery of mise-en-scène is a joy to watch here- note the proto-steadicam shots that introduce Nyder. Then, of course, there is the excellent opening sequence with gas-masked soldiers gunning each other down in slow motion. The lighting by Duncan Brown is astonishingly effective, creating shadows and reflections on Dalek casings and having Davros in shadow, with only his cybernetic eye glowing.

The design is first rate, taking inspiration from the two world wars. The front line is reminiscent on the Western Front, but has a small underground rail network, similar to that at the Maginot line. The Kaleds, of course are Nazis in manner and dress, with Nyder even sporting an all-black analogue of the Iron Cross. However, if the story has one absolutely indisputable triumph, it is Davros himself. As an image, that of a half man, half Dalek, he is potent enough. However, most crucially, Michael Wisher portrays him as a man, not a monster, which is what makes the character so chilling in this story. The regulars are not as well served by the script as they should be, but Sladen, Marter and Baker put in some typically sterling work. The Doctor is seen as always being mindful of the physical and moral consequences of actions, something simply, yet brilliantly brought to light when the Doctor talks of the morality of the creation of a deadly disease with Davros. This sequence, together with the famous one where the Doctor questions his right to destroy the Daleks at their birth are excellently performed and written, although they are blatantly the work of Robert Holmes.

With Genesis of the Daleks, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, because the parts have been sloppily gummed together. But the story is so well-made that it is definitely worth watching- although perhaps not all in one sitting.

NEXT: Revenge of the Cybermen