Doctor Who: Companions’ Snakes on a Brain – “…Dreams are important” (Whovember #5)

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The 50th birthday watch moves on to a firm wicket with the first of the sport Doctors, the well regarded Fifth.  All bouffant and brave heart, he inherited a full TARDIS which arguably pushed the Doctor’s companions to the fore more than ever.  But while there’s a notable death, a notable assassin and a notable android during his tenure there was only a hint of what was to come. 

#5: Mara Tales:  Kinda and Snakedance

WHEN IT CAME TO THIS SCALY FOE, IT WAS AN EASY CHOICE.  Not only an arc, but one that had managed to escape me until now and is generally well regarded.  In the surprisingly mixed bag that constitutes the Davison era, it’s easy to see why the Mara Tales have emerged with a rather enhanced reputation.

Christopher Bailey crafted a mythos in his serials that was both refreshing and very Doctor.  Of course, his work has been academically analysed – one of the first to have any such scrutiny in fact – but it’s easy to see what went right with just a cursory glance.  While not distinct in the canon by any means, the Mara is a wonderfully realised non-corporeal, immortal opponent.  One of the all too few monsters who are an idea, it both occupies the same dream world as Freddy Krueger while requiring the same agreement from its foe as Mephistopheles – and just as exploitative to boot.  But still, despite its totem significance, it’s totally alien.  That’s a compelling idea, that ancient root of evil sat waiting, quietly, timeless in some dark corner of the universe.  That it crosses ground with so many horror films is no accident.

As such, the Mara is one of those fiends that never directly talks to the Doctor.  Even through a possessed humanoid may have a chat, it’s never for very long.  The Doctor had to delve into other areas to realise the Mara’s snake form and defeat it.  One of the key influences, among many, is of course Buddhism.  It wasn’t the first time that Buddhist ideas had seeped into Who though.  A decade earlier, then producer Barry Letts had brought such ideas heavily to bear on the Third Doctor’s exit.  Similarly, that era-ending story had an alien force as blatant totem, albeit with slightly more Terran origins.  And more legs.  But the parallels with that tale are slim.  The Mara’s exploits are not only fresh and referential, but constitutes a story ark that reaches far and wide for its inspiration and lets them unravel like a very leisurely snake.

Kinda (Season 19, 1982)

Kinda is a quite mesmeric marvel of a story.  Featuring good and bad body swapping (it’s all a matter of perspective) as well as extraordinarily surreal sequences and culture clashes, it’s astonishing that at times it feels so stagey.  And that’s a good thing.  It foreshadows a number of later episodes, not least the similarly mesmeric Ghostlight in its abstract abandonment and development of characters.  Unfortunately the sacrifice for this captivating unworldiness is a rather complicated plot.  That has knocked points off for some viewers, but it was a delight for me to think well into the second part that I’ve no idea what the hell is going on.

Oddly, Kinda kicks off with a pelt.  Straight into the action, the thinly disguised British Expedition Force are going stir crazy.  Into the mix of the jungle planet, the TARDIS crew have already landed prior to us discovering them.  Perhaps it’s Nyssa’s rather extraordinary disappearance from the script (it was far too complicated to include her after an extra companion was noticed – typical Davison complaint) that adds a slight disconnect.  The jungle planet is less the root strewn messes seen in The DaleksPlanet of Evil or Planet of the Daleks than the Garden of Eden.  Of course, that analogy is writ large with the devious snake-like presence as we discover – but it does enhance a disorientating world.

While the ‘British’ colonial force is run by regulation, writing off the passive indigenous people, we learn that the natives aren’t the stone age tribe they appear.  They float around the sleeping Tegan like fairies as she sleeps in the wide-open paradise.  Meanwhile, the Doctor and Adric are frogmarched by the extraordinarily over the top scouting vehicle.  It’s absurd but it remains low-key.

Telepathy is key to the tale, as is madness and the effect of various factors on the players.  There may be the malevolent Mara, but there is also the stress and fatigue that drive Hindle to the edge, the threat and prophecy on the  elder tribe woman, the impending fate on her apprentice…  As a study in madness, it stands in Who as one of the better examples.  Then there’s Adric.  Ever strange with his bizarre collaboration and escape attempt.  If only the Doctor had given him one of Nyssa’s shot.

In the opening reversal of Genesis it’s an infected Tegan who throws an apple (of no knowledge-value whatsoever) onto the dumb male of the matriarchal Kinda tribe.  Before that it’s the classic dream cameo, complete with ancient and the inevitable Tegan versus Tegan stand-off.  That’s a rare slip into cliché (albeit, this is a couple of years before Nightmare on Elm Street), but it’s brief and proceeds to more than make up for it.  It’s intriguing that for all its Buddhist themes and opening Christian analogy, Kinda may offer some of the most referential horror motifsin Whodom.  Beyond the Biblical weight of evil, and the atavistic terror of the jungle there are the horror-staple twins who quickly entwine with Hindle’s and wonderfully unpredictable psychological horror.  Splitting the lines of mental disintegration is the Kinda box that may offer pain and pleasure indivisible to the invaders and predates Hellraiser’s Lament Configuration.  Of course it’s once again lower key, and when first opened following a cliff-hanger … a plant pops out, showing that Kinda has a sense of humour.  It also provides more than enough material to show that the Fifth Doctor likes a quote as much as his successor.  Talking of the Sixth Doctor, Kinda shows, with Peter Grimwade’s rather excellent direction that mirrors can provide an excellent denouement despite the silliness.  In all, it’s enough to put everyone involved, as well as the audience, off paradise.  Although it was rather elevated as a returning villain for the 20th season, it’s a tribute to how well received Kinda was a year previously that a sequel quickly slithered out of the traps.  

Snakedance (Season 20, 1983)

Snakedance is, if anything a little slower than its prequel.  That’s noticeable from its beginning where Tegan simply sleeps into the story.  Fortunately though, there’s no dream cameo here.  The Doctor’s far quicker off the bat this time, so much so you wonder if he should make promises as rash as the one he makes at the end.

That said, Snakedance is Aliens to Kinda’s Aliens in terms of its galactic reach and design.

The inhabitants of the planet the TARDIS crew are ominously led to, although meshed in history and the meshing of civilisations, is full of residents far more on a kilter than the savages and expeditionary force seen in Kinda.  Despite that, superstitions remain and they are soon brought to the fore – but not as quickly as the Doctor would like.  It all forms a net that the plot can meander around, full of mind-control and possession.  Snakedance’s unreality is tied up and around an alien bazaar sat in front of an ancient monument.  The set design is rather impressive and, yes I’m going to say it, rather New Series.

Again, it’s the little touches that disconcert.  The Federation is actually a monarchy.  Small acts of sleight of hand are noticed by the villains, when they never would be in other serials.  The Doctor, usually a commanding Time Lord is useless against the resistance of superstition – locked up when he isn’t believed.  There’s a re-enactment where the Play may very well be the Thing.  Similar to the Kinda tribe advanced knowledge of the double-helix, here there is advanced molecular engineering…  There’s also the random Punch and Judy and the constant repetition as the Doctor says, that dreams occur frequently during the day….  So the familiar, but mixed with the inevitable.  We know that the Mara exists at the background of thoughts, but in Snakedance much of the running time is spent watching people celebrate its defeat like a relic, and knowing that the Mara is using this processional facade.

Together Snakedance and Kinda the two have a loose political devolution.  Here, in place of an alien jungle with pith helmeted explorers riding the futuristic equivalent of elephants, there is a fundamental monarchy and the equivalent of a Prince Regent.  Snakedance is another rather low key affair where its mind control strands wind confusingly between the stalls of the alien bazaar.  It’s not only the design that’s very New Who but also its denouement.  The Doctor, surrounded by a crowd, seizing victory against all odds with some spiritual and mystical help before reassuring his companion…  Janet Fielding gets even more to do here than in Kinda thanks to prolonged possession.  It’s rather strange to see her accompanied at times by the one companion who slept through the last Mara adventure, but for long periods the groups are entirely separate.  Fielding get’s to chew the scenery of hidden rock rooms and let her eyes glow at cliff-hangers.  In Snakedance the companion makes a far more concerted stab at being villain.  Yes, we’ve had hypnotised assassins and we’d have blackmailed assassins… But here there’s the real risk Tegan may be lost.  It’s the power of the continuing sequel and its random nature. Can Tegan ever be free…

Still, it’s a snake that can bide its time.  Rather than take control of Ambril, it taunts and teases.

Classic Doctor Who hardly shied away from imperilling its companions, in fact it thrived on it, but here was something else.  True malevolence that could infiltrate the TARDIS and people en masse using that companion.  It’s funny that it’s Tegan.  Disgruntled and as miserable as the Third Doctor, here the reluctant companion has to confront her own vulnerability within the space that she has found itself in ever since taking that wrong turn on a motorway.  Companions would take on a new role under Davison, one rather sadly lost in the Sixth Doctor era.  It wouldn’t be until Ace that one would really start to show what they could do, and foreshadow the New Series just before the axe fell in Perivale.  After all, the Fifth was slowly whittling the TARDIS crew down when at the time the companion was still there to be saved, not to save the Doctor.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the Sixth Doctor’s tussle with reputation in Whovember #6!

Doctor Who: End of the Daleks – “Ghosts from the future” (Whovember #3)

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Daleks, as they are prone to do, show up more often than not.  Before the great sea change of season 12, Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor faced the last of a timeline across three seasons.  On Skaro, that’s called the end of an era.

#3: Day of the Daleks, Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks.

THEY’D BEEN AWAY A WHILE THOSE PEPPER POTS.  Last seen in 1967 when they’d opened and closed the fourth season, the Daleks return at the start of season 9 was a big event.  That first duel is an ambitious tale, one that proved a bit of a stretch in its production actually pushed the crazed mutants onto the back-burner in favour of that real old enemy: time itself.  Day of the Daleks at least attempted something new, but within a year it was outshone by the return of their creator.  No, not that chap.  It was Terry Nation who returned for the subsequent two seasons to provide a homely, intriguing throwback serial in each.  The Third Doctor may never have faced the Cybermen on screen, but he certainly got his fill of Daleks.  What’s more he finished them off.  As much as the latter two of the Pertwee Dalek stories pay tribute to the past, Day of the Daleks hints at a future that would be full of paradox and change…

Day of the Daleks (Season Nine, 1972)

What a great name, and apt – this is all about time.  And of course, as with modern Who – amid the era-typical UNIT posturing, uppity Knights of the Realm and Doctor’s wine theft – it can get a little confusing.  This is the serial where the Daleks have properly taken on the paradoxes of space-time, although they seem to wilfully ignore them.  Forget the time corridors and the like, this is the story that fits before the First Doctor story The Chase.  Set rather statically on Earth, it’s unlikely that it was their successful capture of Earth that prompted their temporal breakthrough.  But it is likely that their loss of that planet prompted their later pursuit of the First Doctor.  Having lost Earth twice was a step too far.  Later Who-lore introduced a Dalek Time Controller who can see beyond its current Timeline (similar to Time Lords, this must be more from technology than physiognomy) and would no doubt miserably impart that second defeat to fuel some hate.  It must be a patchy but clinical case of trial and error, Dalek temporal experimentation.  The fact that the Daleks don’t recognise the Third Doctor adds to this timeline, although could also fit in with the time-bothering Evil of the Daleks as well.

However, the real cameo in Louis Marks’ tale of time is the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.  A brilliant and inspired temporal block that… will forever remain vague and unexplained.  While earlier serials like The Space Museum had tackled the concept of time, this was the first one to properly take it on and all the inherent paradoxes therein.

The concept is sci-fi huge – terrorists travelling back in time to avert a conference that led to their timeline.  Unfortunately, as might be expected, the inherent paradoxical problems are also huge.  Of interest is the Earth of the future, with the silver blushed humans operating under a collaborating Controller who very possibly believes that he’s working for the survival of humanity.  It’s a fine twist on the classic Who trope ‘we can’t possibly fight the Daleks’.  Early on in the story, the concept of the ghosts of time are well explored (that is the real implication of the story after all) and there’s always room for a haunted house in Doctor Who.  The biggest bonus of the story though, has to be UNIT versus Daleks…  And of course, versus the Ogrons.  The Doctor infamously and mercilessly disintegrates one of them during the course of this tale – but then they are silly goits.  And that’s not to say that the Doctor is a darker, uncaring sort in this story – he shows massive concern for his cape at all junctures.  In fact, his first tussle with the Ogrons comes just because he’d left it in the study…

The oddest thing in a tightly coiled story that could never really overcome its central paradox?  The duplicate Jo and Doctor we see at the start.  How and why they appear is never revealed.  And odd side effect of episodic Who perhaps, but one that quite undermines a story based on cause and effect.  That meeting must have happened in temporal proximity as they are in the same clothes.  That we don’t see it is bizarre.  Ghosts of the future.

As the adventure unravels, the servant and Dalek factor shenanigans of the Second Doctor’s tenure is continued as the Daleks craftiness returns to time-space opera (away from the narrow confines of Troughton’s colonial/Victorian battles).  Or perhaps it’s simply the inevitable laziness that comes from Dalek hubris and one of their plans going right? Still, Marks sole stab at Dalek tales is a great success in terms of concept.  A proto-Terminator, it sits oddly in the Pertwee era.  Oh, there are crazier things in store, but the Dalek assault on a country house ticks boxes.

There’s an essential irony here, with the Dalekanium final, pivotal bomb an interesting if convenient creation.  That is not to say that the Daleks do much else.  It’s rather important that the Daleks main role is exploitation.  Their actions are mainly in defence of a timeline in which they have already won.  No doubt they hold that dear, which begs the question why they trust so much to humans until the last – at which point they send a rather insignificant extermination force back in time.  Still, having already exploited a hundred year war, they are minded to protect it against their own technology purloined by guerrilla humans, even if that timeline was created by their own technology.  They could have run a number of logical scenario projections, but for them and us it isn’t just timey-wimey…

Day of the Daleks has a powerful legacy, thanks to its ripping concept and timely VHS release.  The controller, his look and design would cast a long shadow over The Long Game and Bad Wolf of the revived series one.  But talking of exploitation…

Planet of the Daleks (Season Ten, 1973)

Planet of the Daleks may come at the end of an epic arc now known as Dalek War alongside previous adventure Frontier in Space, but it’s a simple sci-fi heavy take of Dalek exploitation once again.  You can always rely on Terry Nation to supply a rollickingly traditional tale.  Planet will always be a favourite of mine, this particular viewing coming on the 20th anniversary of the BBC repeat in 1993.  Of course, that anniversary means we are practically the same distance away from that repeat as it was from the original broadcast.

That’s not worth thinking about, and in any event, but tale isn’t about time.  It’s another chrono-easingly jam-packed space adventure full of solid sci-fi concepts and helpful aliens.  It’s rather loosely connected to Frontier, but several points add significant weight.  The return of the Thals for the first time since The Daleks is a joy.  Now an intergalactic combat force that regard the Doctor and Earth as equal legends, they are not simply a neat throwback but make for one of the better realised allies in Whodom.  It’s enough to take your mind away from questioning how Thals and Daleks timeshare Skaro, but presumably the Daleks are in one of their more galaxy focussed phases, leaving the planet to the Thals until they conquer it again.  These affable, reluctant but war-ready Thals are a nice development.  They’re different from human portrayals in the series, and there’s a nice continuity in their feeling of responsibility and how their millennia long war has spread to the stars.  The planet Spiridon is presumably near to Skaro in galactic terms.  It’s named as a planet in the ninth system by the Thals, adding nice speculation as to how this fits in with the seven galaxies we find out that Ancient Skaro residents (Kaleds anyway) were aware of (as we find out in two Dalek stories time).

So, here the Daleks are at their terra-exploitationary best.  The ice core is important, but the distinctive abilities of the planet’s inhabitants are a real bonus.  Dalek invisibility is a silly ploy, although it makes for a classic cliff-hanger at the end of the first part.  Terry Nation sure knows how to craft some cliff-hangers.  The real killer in Planet comes with the revelation that the planet Spiridon houses the largest Dalek attack force in history…  Cue some rather adorable miniature work that no man-child Dalek toy collector could ignore.  With the cryogenic suspension courtesy of the of the planet’s frozen core there’s a solid and brilliant centre to the plot.  Of course there has to be a refrigeration unit, and also a giant bloody ventilation shaft.  That cliff-hangers a favourite – all the better since part three was colour remastered…  Planet is a romp, and solid return by Terry Nation.  Yes, it depletes the Daleks a little, especially when Jo grant grapples one.  But being pushed into a (frozen) lake, having their vision by coats impaired and sluggishly waking from cryogenic suspension – that’s all part of the slightly silly appeal they’ve always had.  Same as it ever was – sometimes they are simply Dalek.  And a special word for the Daleks left at the whim of the Kamikaze tray spilling Spiridon:  Trapped for eternity, we hear panic and fear.  And that’s rather affecting.

Death to the Daleks (Season Eleven, 1974)

Death to the Daleks occupies a similarly warm place to Planet in my cold, mutated, green heart (of the future).  It’s just about the first Doctor Who VHS I owned, and probably one of my most watched – although not as much in recent years.  I remember having to repair the plastic sleeve cover, using a rather crude sticky back plastic solution when I first found it in a rather disreputable shop.  And that’s a pretty good analogy for what the Daleks have to do in a classic science fiction tale of an ‘EMP’ planet that necessitates that traditional Dalek guns are replaced by machine guns. Death gets a lot of stick, perceived as a further slide in Dalek dominance.  It’s a fair argument, although it’s unfortunate considering that some of the latter set pieces are well realised homages to the earlier monster led Dalek adventures, ideas that Terry Nation had those in spades.

Yes, I’m going to say it again, Nation brings some heavy sci-fi tropes to the planet Exillon.  There’s the stone age civilisation in awe of an ancient, technologically advanced, long abandoned city.  There’s the compelling concept of that city as sentient being– so good that the Doctor’s journey through its immune system would be picked up by the far better regarded Pyramids on Mars.  Nation pulls out that idea of an immune system, with its literal antibodies in the effective hermetically sealed control room at the end, replete with distracted Doctor and evaporating corpses (a neat play on the watching alien idea).  Most of all though, Death is Doctor Who’s version of Alien 3.  It’s a similar attempt to depower and even the odds a little between two opposing forces.  Unfortunately, that idea seldom works.

There’s a ruggedness about latter Pertwee that I can only put down to the Doctor’s flatter sense of velvet, the lack of Master and of course, the wonderful Sarah Jane Smith.  The opening scenes are brilliant, with the prolonged, physical escape from the depowered TARDIS and the long earth furrows of the alien world with its rising steam…

Once again, of course, the Doctor encounters a band of space explorers.  But here, the usual dissent in the ranks is a little more developed.  This time the resentful humans are forced to work with Daleks and we and they are well aware of their own flawed characters.  Despite that intrigue, they struggle to compete with the wonderfully realised Thals of Planet.  The most interesting arc is that of the unlikable Galloway (yes, bearded Scottish, alliance forming Galloway), especially the saddening and sickening way he takes control against the orders of the dying commander that only he heard.  Of course, there is redemption by the end…

“Living, bubbling lumps of hate” is how the Doctor describes the Dalek mutations here – charming.  It may be true, but sits a little uneasily with Daleks who are taken out one by one as if they are in an old Skaro slasher film, all while they confer about their own duplicity.  Maybe that’s Dalek morality for you.

You could put this down to their arrogance on a lesser world if it wasn’t for that darn catchy Dalek incidental music…  Still it’s not long before their exploitation grows from a chemical warfare to a  marriage of convenience with the humans and on to their comfortable enslavement of the stone age Exillons (later oil analogies add a nuance).  Unfortunately, those indigenous inhabitants are a little similar to the Spiridons with their big coats.  They may have a little more reason to have them on their inhospitable quarry planet, but it ruins their quite effective design.  Like large rock possums, it’s strange that everyone seems immune to the Exillons large eyes.  Not that most of them aren’t as homicidal as they are superstitious.

Still, it’s wise to consider Death as one of the middle tale in Dalek history, easy in a  long stretched campaign of empire building between their protracted origins and new time line.  If you do, Death offers a few odd moments of brilliance.  One is the Third Doctor’s commentary of the Dalek versus City root in the caverns.  Another is the quite striking, but epically long pagan sacrifice of Sarah 9made for 5.1) – that the Doctor rather recklessly, albeit rightly, physically attacks (not out of character for him in a Dalek tale).  The sight of the Daleks equipped with machine guns is striking and effective, in fact it’s one that stayed with me for years.  Machine guns suit them, even if their quick change is a bit of a stretch.

As defaulting to that the ‘EMP’ plot suggests, the Daleks were in need of some fresh blood by this point.  While Marks had created an interesting plot in Day of the Daleks, it didn’t need Daleks as much as it needed a time conceit.  Nation brought a very specific tone back to the two third Doctor Dalek tales that followed, and they are very much Dalek tales.  In both, world conquering Daleks use their general sneakiness to extend their universal war aims.  They’re exploitative in all three tales, and in all three bring does one of their unique characteristics come to the fore.  The Daleks may be logical, but they are by no means unemotional.  In turn, whether the Doctor teams up with Thals or humans to defeat them, the language and plans he hatches are the same.  By this point, they are locked in a fixed battle that would foreshadow the later ideology clash of the Time Lords and the Daleks.

Across three years and 14 episodes (not including Frontier), Pertwee’s dandy action Doctor provided a satisfactory end to the Daleks’ early 1970s stage.  However, the necessary change was imminent.  While the Doctor’s call for Time Lord help in Planet may show an skirmish in the later Time War, it would be with his next Dalek tale that Nation would sow their new future.  With first refusal on Dalek stories and a mythos that needed stemming, it’s not so surprising that Nation would mix things up, but that he would do it so soon and so effectively.  Not only would Season 12 reset the Dalek timeline, but arguably reduce the pepper pots to second string players until the 2005 revival.  After an interesting and reverential final trilogy, it would soon be time to meet their other father, a ghost from the past…

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the Fourth Doctor’s whole new scarf in Whovember #4!

Doctor Who: Reputation – “He’s dangling on the edge of oblivion!” (Whovember #6)

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Time to even some scores on this Doctor Who viewing odyssey for the 50th birthday Month of the Doctor!  Here the arc is simple: two tales of the Sixth Doctor that are terrible or at least… Perceived terrible.  Yes, the two most despised stories of the underrated Sixth Doctor…

#6: The Twin Dilemma and TimeLash.

“CHANGE MY DEAR, AND IT SEEMS NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON” AND “LEAVE THE GIRL, IT’S THE MAN I WANT”.  Both classic phrases that kicked off post-regeneration stories in the 1980s and both two of the most promising lines in Doctor Who’s 50 year career.  But, both times, that promise wasn’t fulfilled.

Particularly in the Sixth Doctor’s case, the cards were stacked against him the minute he regenerated.

For this part of the Whovember re-watch, the Sixth Doctor again draws the short cat broach as I tackle his two most notorious tales.  The two, legendarily infamous serials, The Twin Dilemma and, shudder, Timelash.

Interestingly, and no doubt uncoincidentally, they are also the two Colin Baker serials I’ve never seen.  Well, if I have to watch these to complete the set, what a way to go… (Presses play on DVD player)

The Twin Dilemma (Season 21, 1984)

Dilemma’s main problems are worn on its multi-coloured sleeve.

It followed The Caves of Androzani, and nobody’s supposed to do that, to paraphrase a later Doctor in the throes of regeneration.  Caves has achieved widespread acclaim for a number of reasons, including Robert Holmes’ storming script, Graeme Harper’s energetic direction and Davison’s poignant last performance.  In truth it’s more than the sum of its parts, a fact that lifts some of its low points.  As good as it is, I know from experience it’s not a great jumping on point for Who fans-in-waiting. Never doing that again…

It’s not great idea to set yourself up by completely slagging off your immediate predecessor…

For the follow-up it’s well documented how the production team wanted to mix things up.  There wasn’t any real need, but as with the 11th Doctor’s arrival, I can see how and why crews can get carried away with a show that has change at its very core.  In fact, Dilemma’s main problems are worn on its multi-coloured sleeve.  The Doctor’s costume is clearly a mistake and Colin Baker’s probably its most outspoken critic.  Perhaps more unforgivable is the amount of time it takes for the Doctor to select it…  The serial’s also not helped by its position as the final story of Season 21, particularly when it falls into the same pit of hubris as other science fiction shows.  Much like the third Star Trek TV sequel found, it’s not great idea to set yourself up by completely slagging off your immediate predecessor.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the Sixth Doctor, a self-proclaimed regenerative “triumph”, does.  Throttling his assistant then spending a great deal of time playing up his future as a hermit doesn’t add much – in truth, as many have observed, it just alienates the audience.  If the tale is looking for a hook to drag the Sixth Doctor into (Time Lord) normality and back into ‘the role of the Doctor’, it needs to be strong.  It needs to be Androzani strong.

Almost inevitably it isn’t.  The story is weak.  Never work with child twins and gastropods is the moral here.

There are some interesting touches put up in mitigation, as ever.  The idea of the genius twins with universe unravelling powers is intriguing, even though it fares badly against Bidmead’s conception of Logopolis just a few years previously.  It actually needed to be drawn out – just look at the few scenes with their father and the bizarre scripting about their mother.  Unnecessary to the plot and useless for adding depth.  The police force that provides an in for the reliable Kevin McNally isn’t a bad idea, but it’s bewilderingly realised as what amounts to a personal bodyguard for such powerful children – guards who fall at the first hurdle.  That opening high concept heist has appeal, even more so when we find out the perpetrator’s race, but it’s far too underplayed.  While there is tension, but it could have been so much better, so much clearer.

Most interesting is the presence of that other Time Lord, another exile, wonderfully portrayed by Maurice Denham.  It’s interesting how much of the Sixth Doctor’s tenure pays  in homage to the past, something I’ll come on to later… Here Azmael is a Time Lord that the Doctor last met a couple of regenerations before.  The more you hear about those fountain antics, the more likely it seems that this was his fourth incarnation.  Azmael’s involvement adds an element of intrigue to the plot – a Time Lord yes, but a blackmailed one.  It’s an interesting idea, even if it seems as unlikely as the bird-like Jacondans.  Similarly Mestor’s plot isn’t too bad, a nice maximum impact scheme, if only more time was spent on explaining how the Giant Gastropod of legend seized control of the planet and less on the new Doctor’s changing room.

By the end, it’s clear that Twin has presented something that is less than the sum of its parts, contrary to the promise laid down by its predecessor.  In that context, the impact of points like Azmael’s interesting forced self-death is lost.  That said, there are definite highlights, one being the Doctor’s nifty escape from a ticking spacecraft death trap.

Cliffhangers should, as always, be the crucial consideration

Saddled with an awkward tone and pace, perhaps The Twin Dilemma’s main fault is matching its weak plot with some incredibly poor cliff-hangers.  None of them stand much stead.  In one Peri talks a bit; in none of them does the Doctor really do anything.  That should, as always, have been the crucial consideration and would have certainly lifted its renown.  Unfortunately, Twin is left to carry a lot of the can for the larger decisions that affected the whole of the Sixth Doctor’s short run.

That The Twin Dilemma has been known to rank as the worst Doctor Who serial of all time, sometimes lower than 30th anniversary muck-around-on-the-cheap Dimensions in Time, is a travesty.  It’s inexplicable.  How can anyone rate Time and the Rani as better?   Or perhaps there’s a worse Colin Baker…  Yes, unfortunately with the scores at ‘one down, one not so actually bad’, low budgets, inexperienced writers and shoddy plots come into play…

Timelash (Season 22, 1985)

Timelash is universally dismissed as bloody awful

quality shifts during the final part of Colin Baker’s first full season have been discussed at length.  It’s rather cruel that some senior figures in Wholore have described his entrance as the start of the end, but there were issues.  And right at the centre sits this little gem.  Timelash is universally dismissed as bloody awful while both its predecessor The Two Doctors and its successor Revelation of the Daleks are fondly remembered.  The truth however, is that both are quite awkward examples of Doctor Who, that just need that little something extra to break the ’80s malaise (it was there in parts of Davison and McCoy after all).  The mid-1980s in particular, were not an easy time, and writers Holmes and Eric Saward weren’t quite firing on all cylinders at times.   If they’re knocked out, what chance did Glen McCoy stand?  A writer with just two scripts to his name at time of commission…

Let’s start with the interesting.

What’s often missed with the Sixth Doctor is how retrospective that unpredictable Time Lord was.  Forget the Valeyard and New Adventures retconning, it was as through the shadow of death hung over from him from the start.  In many of his adventures he’s forced to look back at the past.  From the blatant pairing up with his second self in The Two Doctors to old friend Azmael in his first adventure.  From the old friend’s funeral he attends in Revelation of the Daleks to his trip back to Totter’s Lane in Attack of the Cybermen… History hang hevily around the Doctor’s neck at that time.  In Timelashhe’s overshadowed by Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor, hiding behind walls and as thoughts and memories.

It’s a morbid cloud in retrospect, but as a cohesive (if inadvertent) plan for a Doctor arc it wouldn’t be matched until the series revival.

That comparison to the revival is particularly pertinent  at the start of Timelash.  Foreshadowing his later trial, the Doctor wants to visit Andromeda, dismissing Peri when she asks why she never gets to choose where they go next.  Compare that to modern incarnations who positively thrive on the suggestions of their companions.  The return of a bickering TARDIS crew is out of time and out of place in the latter part of the season – a worrying sign that not all was write in the commissioning office.

The idea of the Doctor being known to Karfel is unfortunately the serial’s only really good idea, but draws an unflattering comparisson.  That link to the Third Doctor and Jo Grant is one that various production members are quick to lay squarely at the door of producer John Nathan Turner’s.  It does feel stilted – a reach for depth that only highlights that in many ways Timelash is a Bad Peladon tale.  And we all know what that means.

Saddled with too many ideas, the story could never sustain its politics with a population of approximately five (and two androids).  That they act as aggressors to puppet snakes with a super weapon doesn’t help (“Sounds familiar” says Peri. “To what?” asks everyone).  The faults are epic, to the point that you wonder how much worse it would have been without Paul Darrow’s over the top performance.  Oh, that the brilliant Avon came to this.

The Borad’s make-up isn’t that bad, but too much time is spent on him rubbing his ridiculous rubber fin Blofeld-style before his muddled reveal.  And that’s not an euphemism.  I will say that his voice is good, and so is his avatar.  The reveal of the fake Borad (Who regular Denis Carey) is quite striking if not chilling, but while the Borad’s lair is wonderfully dark, the villains sliding chair and the fact that no one notices him when he has his chair turned around is ridiculous.  More ridiculous, in fact, than the idea that merging with a Morlox would increase his intelligence.  He’s defeated by a mirror as well.  That must have looked good on paper.

Quite how that also works on the (interestingly designed) androids I’ve no idea, but it may have been the invasive and comedy incidental music that really disorientated it.  Yes, I’ve started to talk about the ridiculous. In a work of fiction.  But this serial deliberately pushes fiction to the fore, as if asking for it.  there’s a Frankenstein analogy to be had in the androids I’m sure, but the crass reveal to ignore is the laboured HG Wells reveal.  To think he was the hook that the episode was built around…  And all I can think of is how he and Vena converse in English.

Then there’s the cut-away (last minute?) scene where the Doctor calculates the time deflection coefficient.  And then there’s the clone reveal.  And the smiling, presumably sadistic android.  And the fact that its resolution tramples over Terror of the Zygons…

Possibly my favourite part of the story comes near the end where Mykros asks Vensa to “try not to be so pessimistic”.  Really?  She’s read the script…

Time Lords don’t have a monopoly over the fourth dimension… But they should have patented it.

A particular shout out to the technobabble of Timelash (now, there’s a title).  That’s something that can wear us and many a great science-fiction story down.  While the phrase ‘kronton tunnel’ is soon forgotten in favour of a time corridor, there was a crippling decision to add “time” to any bizarre device in the story.  We have the Timelash itself, the Time Acceleration Beam, the Time ruse…  As the Borad suggest, Time Lords don’t have a monopoly over the fourth dimension.  Indeed.   But they should have patented some of it.

Of course, Timelash was famouslyIt was short of money and at the whim of poor decisions, apparently from all over the timeshop…  It shows. But I would still happily trade The Twin Dilemma a little more respect in return for Timelash’s banishment in a… Timelash. The Doctor was clearly lying when he said that “The waves of time wash us all clean”.  Timelash once again proves that unlike James Bond, single word titles seldom bode well for the Doctor’s adventures.

For that reason alone it’s worse than Dimensions in Time.

Argh, the horror, the horror – time to pop a few incarnations back…

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Or if you prefer, a leap forward for the more chronologically-minded, read on for Seventh Doctor’s End Game in Whovember #7!

Doctor Who: Legacy – “We’re trying to defeat the Daleks, not start a jumble sale” (Whovember #1)

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The grand start to Doctor Who viewings in the 50th birthday ‘Month of the Doctor’.  This first arc finds the original Doctor in full swing, fighting off Daleks and time itself.

#1: The Space Museum and The Chase.

THIS SCHEDULE WILL DEFINITELY GO TIMEY-WIMEY, BUT IT HAS TO START WITH THE ORIGINAL.  
The young, the grumpiest… The First Doctor.  Hmm?
This choice of adventures isn’t all about beginnings though.  Coming well into the Hartnell era, they also bring a significant ending as well. In November 1963, An Unearthly Child began with teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright conscientiously pursuing their mysterious student Susan Foreman through the London fog to 76 Totter’s Lane.  It was a precipitous mission and one that ultimately landed them – after two years of concussions, gas and radiation poisoning  – in the London of 1965.  At the beginning, in that totter’s yard, the two teachers were the hook that the show was built around.  They were the audience’s eyes, discovering the mysterious Doctor and learning more about his enigmatic grand-daughter.  It was a trick so good that it would be repeated again in 2005 when the series regenerated and once more when the show spun  into Torchwood.

The Space Museum (Season Two, 1965)

Recent ‘New Series’ stories have built-up the role of those two, ‘first’ companions in Who mythology.  Some have developed that stumbling discovery by the accidental stowaways as the catalyst that creates the Doctor as we know him.  They’re the two that make the crochety old exile get involved.  If not, he would have presumably happily stayed in the East End, hoping that regeneration wouldn’t catch him in the chemists or at school parents’ day.  As seen in the first episodes, at this point he’s a Time Lord who would rather run away from adventure than embrace them.  It’s a powerful idea, that adds weight to that first adventure.  While, as the Doctor mentions in The Space Museum, he’s already played spectator roles in the likes of James Watt discovering the power of steam he’s not the rampaging freedom fighter (and most dangerous man in the universe) that Steven Moffat would seek to take down a peg or two 50 years or so later.

That reading it pure retcon however.  In the show, little is heard of them again after the Doctor grudgingly sees they’ve arrived safely through the Time Space Visualiser at the end of The Chase.  The main exception is the strange reference in the Sarah Jane Adventure Death of the Doctor and the their implicit inclusion during the Tenth Doctor’s morbid coda.

They weren’t the first companions to leave the good ship TARDIS though.  That sole privilege fell, oddly, to the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan earlier in Season Two.  She was quickly replaced with Vicky a young character who can be kindly described as an extension of Susan’s character rather than a carbon copy.  Of Ian and Barbara’s final two stories, it’s The Space Museum where Vicki comes into her own, although that tale is also generally considered one of the weakest stories of the show’s first two years.  True, there are many problems with the four part serial, but it’s main and unavoidable trap is that it could never live up to the promise of its first part.  Caught up in Script Editor Dennis Spooner’s plans to have thematic diversity between serials, it picked the short straw of hard science.  The first part works wonderfully, sustained by the TARDIS crew alone, some great directorial flourishes, moments of great tension and that fantastic cliff-hanger – when the crew find their future selves boxed as exhibits in the titular Space Museum.  But the pace was always going to alter when the time travellers are caught up by time in part two.  Perhaps the strangest thing is that the blatant science plot of part one is replaced by comedy.

I don’t think the fault quite lies in the fact that an essentially comedic story was taken far too seriously by cast and crew.  There are strange truisms that appear comedic, but many factors are highlighted in retrospect.  The rather pathetic aggressors who’ve invaded the planet seemingly only to build a staid and empty museum to their own achievements – with no curators, but guards and a governor – are indeed proto-Douglas Adams.  but could they ever really be anything else?  to this day, their equally ineffective opponents, the planet’s native Xenons, are some of the most pathetic rebels that the show’s seen.  But while they’ve trapped in a stalemate of ineptitude, this miserable struggle  provides Vicki with the bite she’s been waiting for.  And then it’s not just Adams.  In retrospect, it’s a bit like Rimmer taking charge of the WaxWorld allies in the Red Dwarf series four episode Meltdown

The ending is the treat: a blunt example of the TARDIS crew finding that every road leads to Rome – or at least their eventual fate as Museum exhibits.  However, those ‘paths’ are as typical in the context of the show as kidnapping, capturing and gassing.  The most extraordinary thing is that the museum has no CCTV network.  Perhaps the great Morok Empire, despite the frankly bizarre suggestion that they’ve defeated Daleks, just hadn’t got round to it yet.  Despite the ineffectiveness of either party, or perhaps because of it, the ending is oddly satisfying as the Doctor’s content to point out.

A clear highlight of the serial is Hartnell himself who is clearly having a grand old time.  On many occasions, he’s merrily chuckling away, but that may be the pre-and post- effect of the holiday that took him away from episode three.  Here his Doctor is particularly mercurial and wonderfully eccentric.  Fascinated by the smaller things, finding it far to amusing that he turns a Dalek into a hiding place – his behaviour adds immensely to a finale in which he plays a very minor role.  Though we may later find him to be a Time Lord,  The Space Museum establishes the master.

The Chase (Season Two, 1965)

The following story does what it says on the tin-Dalek.  Again, The Chase, is not the best regarded Hartnell tale.  The third major Dalek serial, it’s inevitably going to look weak against its definitive predecessors.  It would have been impressive had it had the same strength, especially considering that it was a rather last minute commission from Dalek creator Terry Nation.  The fact that The Chase emerged close to the first colour Dalek film and never quite made it as the adapted second sequel in that series doesn’t help.

The main problem here isn’t the ambitious set-up, but the complete lack of plot.  As established at the end of The Space Museum, The Daleks have been rather irritated by the Doctor.  By this point, they’ve perfected time travel (they move quickly, these Daleks, but more on that later) and set off on an assassination mission through, as they say, “infinity”.  But after an auspicious start on the sandy, twin-sun scorched planet of Aridius – and the inevitable shot of a Dalek rising from the sand – the Dalek’s mission appears slightly flawed.  Once they’ve found that they can’t destroy the TARDIS, their pursuit is directionless.  They resort to a rather unconvincing attempt to duplicate the Doctor as their numbers are slowly whittled down by a dodgy Earth galleon construction and Frankenstein’s Monster among other things.

The Chase‘s plot is necessarily episodic, more so than a usual story.  In the middle, the similarly framed joke reveal of The Mary Celeste and the Haunted House attraction in successive episodes don’t help the repetition.  Model work is excellent though, not least in the final two episodes when the the two parties find themselves on the jungle planet of Mechanus.

Housed in their impressive city, the Mechanoids are a misstep.  The idea lurking behind their bulbous design and slightly too daft-voice is still good on paper – human designed terra-forming weapons.  But that fascinating edge is removed by the metal versus metal scrap at the end.  It’s o surprise that they never made a return appearance, foot noted as proof that Dalek-lightning doesn’t strike twice.

At points, The Chase seems even more of a parody of typical Doctor Who than The Space Museum.  The haunted house setting, where the set-up isn’t revealed to the travellers (nor the rather optimistic 1996 entrance price of $10) is a particularly noticeable twist on a traditional Who adventure.  Having previously penned The Keys of Marinus, the first of the Doctor’s ‘travelling serials’, here writer Terry Nation is simply repeating the trick by combining it with his pepper-pot creations.  Nation tropes abound, especially the unfortunate inhabitants of Aridius and their Mire Beast enemies. The Mechanoid planet, with its dangerous moving fungus and gleaming city twists the concept of the original Dalek tale itself.  Terry Nation was a master of filler when required, if not quite of pace.

There’s quite a few precursors to later and even New Who here, some vaguer than others.  Of course, the legacy of the structure is most felt in the The Dalek’s Masterplan, the Fourth Doctor’s search for the Key to Time and then 2007’s The Infinite Quest. In the course of this chase however, the Doctor is strangely open to the concept that they’ve left space to enter the human mind in the TARDIS when confronted with a house of nightmares – a theme that would return again and again   The Empire State Building foreshadows the plans the Daleks would earlier/later have for that skyscraper in Daleks in Manhattan.  Season Eight’s Hide necessarily picks up up its cues from the Haunted House, while Season Six’s Curse of the Black Spot would take the Doctor back to a galleon setting and prove just as inexplicable (editing can take the blame there).  Some of these are a stretch, with The Chase coming as it did just two years into a now 50 year career.  But, the third Dalek serial was always going to be important.  Just imagine the kids who were excited when they saw that Dalek prop in The Space Museum.  Then imagine how excited they were during this six part adventure…

Special mention must go to the Time Space Visualiser. Nicely picked up from the previous adventure’s museum, it allows a light filler-filled episode one that guest stars the Doctor’s future complication, Queen Bess – along with petrified Shakespeare –  Abraham Lincoln and of course, The Beatles.  “Now you’ve squashed my favourite Beatles” the Doctor quips. Badly. After they’ve regaled him with Ticket to Ride.

This adventure is a fine example of the early Dalek era, but its chronology may not be as clear cut as it seems.  Again, hindsight plays a large part.  As the Daleks say, their rather sudden revenge is triggered by the Doctor delaying their invasion of Earth, but is that the invasion seen earlier that year?  Some Dalek chronology puts the story after the Third Doctor tale Day of the Daleks, with a more compelling rationale.  By that time the Daleks would not only have been thwarted in their invasion of Earth twice (the second time by a Doctor they didn’t quite recognise at first) but also have developed more established time capability.  Certainly, the Dalek’s development of time travel, dimensional engineering (seemingly lost by New Who) and a new mobility without external power packs makes it a better chronological fit. Crucially, it still complies with the Pre-Davros ‘first history of the Daleks’.

A final word on the sulky Doctor who reluctantly sees his companions off at the end of The Chase.  “I shall miss them” he says at last.  Whether the Doctor as we know him was created by Ian and Barbara’s accidental intervention is open to speculation.  But it is fair to say that they gave him a push in the right direction.

While both The Space Museum and The Chase show signs that the show was becoming aware of itself just three seasons in, the show’s legacy was assured by the time his first companions had all left that battered blue police box.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on to find the Second Doctor turning up like a cosmic hobo penny in Whovember #2!

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