Tag: Whovember

Doctor Who: Ace – “…I always leave these things to the last moment” (Whovember #7)

Seventh Doctor Whovember Jokertoon

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The 50th birthday watch reaches a sad end… Or is it a beginning? After 26 continuous years, the Seventh Doctor may have seen the classic series off, but he did it with style. In fact,  those last few serials brought the focus back to the Doctor’s companion, and in doing so it laid noticeable roots for a later regeneration… “The end – but the moment has been prepared for” indeed.

#7: The Ace Trilogy: Ghostlight, The Curse of Fenric and Survival

“SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST”. IT’S ONE OF THE BETTER THINGS TO DRAW FROM THOSE, THE LAST DARK DAYS OF DOCTOR WHO. The three final stories of the classic series, forming a loose ark around companion Ace, are preoccupied with that key Darwinian thought. That the last of the serials is Survival is only part of the irony.  It’s far more satisfactory than the theme of entropy that accompanied latter Tom Baker stories simply for being more positive. But of course, while that prophecy of entropy in the early 80s took a few years to come true, the Darwinian rule that came at the end of the 1980s was proved wrong immediately.

Ghostlight (Season 26, 1989)

While it was Survival that ended the run via a hastily recorded voice over, it was Ghostlight that was last to be filmed. A fitting end, with Darwinian Theory part of the plot and not just an analogy, it delved into some of the show’s darkest corners.

Writer Marc Platt lays on classic tropes thick and fast. The body-horror. The Victorian domestic tragedy. The big game hunter. Pygmalion. Deification of more advanced civilisations. Vampirism. Nocturnalism. The evil in the basement. A Royal assassination. An inspector Calls. Taxidermy with glowing eyes… And mixed in there is a bit of biography for Ace. It’s a doomed house, she’s already destroyed it in the future, but how do we get there?

Anyone claiming this isn’t a classic slice of classic Doctor Who – yes, classic – needs to be sent to Java. But like any classic, it has flaws.  There’s has to be a sacrifice.  It’s not immediately comprehensible and indeed, if any serial should have had the run of four episodes, it was Ghostlight.  But that said, in a tale governed by cause and effect, three parts seems oddly balanced.

Ghostlight is deliriously and wilfully surreal within its stagey, set-bound surroundings. Almost every scene carries foreboding as character switch and change from villain to victim. Devastating plot revelations are quickly revealed and then cut short by, literal petrification or reversion to primordial soup.   And by the end, the two main aliens have swapped their roles, and set out into the unknown with a Neanderthal and a big game hunter. At the speed of light.

Then there’s the game-playing Doctor. At points, his motivation is obscured, there’s a real sense he may get to any length to uncover the truth but also that he knows everything all along. As would be repeated in the next two stories, this Doctor not crippled by the myth of The Other that surfaced in Season 25, as the show teetered on the edge of revealing too much about his origin. He’s simply and darkly Time’s Champion – an alien uncovering and solving problems to get to the truth, where everything and nothing is significant. It’s a shame this Doctor is only seen for one season, four stories.

I’m deliberately excluding Battlefield to concentrate on this Ace-centered trilogy, but it was in that serial, that this Doctor was established.  The future, potential, (ginger) Merlin Doctor is more compelling than the Doctor’s ancient routes and has persisted to this day (ginger). Not for the last time, Ace is at the heart of this story, a conduit for the Doctor to solve his mysteries.

Not for the last time, there are moments when it looks like he’d go to any lengths to get the end-game. The denouement is one of the strangest in Wholore, the Doctor versus an Angel. Light can wander at a whim, and its alien nature is one of the most effective realisations seen in Doctor Who, oblivious, confused and silly. For the first time in years the Doctor captures the presence to stand up to such a being with believability, McCoy’s pratfalls used sparingly for effect. Of the serials I saw live as a kid, parts of Ghostlight have stayed the longest.

It’s a walking metaphor where Doctor Who can run riot. In some ways a fitting end for a show that would not be filmed again in Britain for many years.  But then, this trilogy is full of different endings…

Ghostlight brought the house of Blink, Ghostlight brought the secret life of Amy Pond.

The Curse of Fenric (Season 26, 1989)

The stories that follow the set-bound Ghostlight have the distinction of being two of only three classic serials completely filmed on location. In terms of effectiveness, The Curse of Fenric steals it.

Fenric is quite possibly the greatest Doctor Who serial of the 1980s. Its scope and realisation is incredible, from the atmospheric opening with the Russian troops landing at Whitby. Like Marc Platt’s Ghostlight, the number of ideas that Ian Briggs condenses into these four parts is stupendous. But unlike Ghostlight, the plot is, ironically for much of it, relatively watertight. It not only creates a powerful Doctor figure (both time’s Champion, but also dessert – sitting, sculpting chess-player) but even fits in some time paradox.

Ace is very much at the forefront, not here because of Perivale antics seen in the serials either side, but by a genetic, pre-determined route that brought her into the Doctor’s path.  The huge personal issues brought to bear on the companion are only rendered larger by the fact she is simply a small pawn in a game of millennia.

And then there comes one of the strangest moves in Companion history, one of the boldest: the blatant sexualisation of a companion. This isn’t Leela or Romana showing off their wardrobe, this is Ace deliberately luring a soldier for distraction.  There were other ways, but neither the Doctor nor the companion discuss it.  “Professor, I’m not a little girl” – that’s not somewhere that Doctor Who goes very often, even as the current series attracts criticism for its over-sexualization …  It’s a sharp change in the TARDIS crew relationship, and one that’s a little lost in the following serial.

That scene sits against a backdrop of the unravelling relationship of Ace and her mother. There’s no Blinovitch Limitation Effect here, that would just serve to undermine what is easily a forced storyline. There is that neat idea that Ace is subliminally examining her parental issues.  But that’s soon swept over by the fact that she is a Wolf of Fenric.  She creates herself, and much of what she hates.

It’s fitting and understandable that Ace has her strongest development in the hands of Ian Briggs.  He created her in Dragonfire two seasons before, and here is a dramatic and fitting resolution.  When he first invited her, the Doctor was left with an unwritten rule: “And the third… Well, I’ll think up the third (rule) by the time we get back to Perivale.”  Somewhere along the way, it seems to have been written.

Elsewhere, the pacing is on the most part great, propelled by the location filming with only a few random edits showing that at one point it was considered as a five part serial.  One unfortunate scene includes the reference to Gabriel Chase, a dark memory of Aces that in the event of broadcast, was explained one serial earlier.  , It’s a reminder how surprisingly strong the entire final season is, considering rescheduling and reshoots, lost footage and location filming.  Briggs had significantly less time to complete the serial than he was expecting.  Perhaps most surprising in this sharp and compelling serial is the uncredited directing nod that John Nathan Turner earned for this classic.

It’s an indication of the perception that affected all of Who in the late 1990s that Nicholas Parsons is unfairly dismissed for his role here. This is no gimmicky turn and forms a large part of the exploration of faith, obsession and ideology.  A brilliantly realised character, he is just one of the strong characters who earn our sympathies. A special mention must go to the historical parenthesis that Fenric sits between.

The Viking history – ever an atavistic pull for the British – is incredibly evocative, carried through script and a montage of the underwater longboat wreck rather than flashbacks. The journey of Fenric from the East with the Ancient Haemovore in constant pursuit is also effective. That creation brings with it, the flip side. The paradox of the Ancient One creating its own future may be a little too much, but the mysterious vampires of humanity’s future are brilliantly realised in their period garb. It’s an old trope, the dead rising from the waves, but not for the first time in Doctor Who they are ghosts of the future as much as the past.

That the Great Serpent and his master forms a basis for Norse mythology while drawing Whitby and Dracula into the web is masterful. The fact that it takes the liberty of reversing some coincidences you find in Who serials is incredible. It’s far more than just another waster role for Anne Reid in Doctor Who.

For a number of reasons, Fenric is about as removed from Doctor Who as children’s programme as it can be.  And still, it manages to avoid the far more gratuitous violence of the Colin Baker years.  How it does it is brilliant: having strong motivation and scripting.

Fenric brought the horrors of war and the art of paradox back to Doctor Who, Fenric brought Time Lord walking in eternity to the New Series, Fenric brought the consequence of Sex to the TARDIS that would one day threaten the Doctor’s life.

Survival (Season 26, 1989)

Survival returns Ace and her Professor to Perivale, but not the stage show of Ghostlight. The weakest of the final three, it still contains moments of mystery and a strong and alien story that even rather patchy video effects can’t destroy Writer Rona Munro has bemoaned the Cheetah people costumes – a decision that robbed the script of its lesbian subtext.

True, they look a tad too costumey for what are a wonderfully literal race, robbing the actors of everything except very broad moves.  Still, they aren’t completely ineffective.  Three in a row, Survival dishes up yet another form of tension.  The horse mounted cheetahs and the vulture-like kitlings with their vast teleportation abilities.  Of course, one kitling spends most of its time as an animatronics puppet.  It’s obvious, but adds an unsettling element to the Master’s stalking.

It’s no worse than some Hollywood effects of the 1990s, that’s for sure. But the real joy comes from the blunt nature over nurture sci-fi trope.  The idea of the civilisation destroyed by their planet is riveting.  It would always be ambitious to realise that on screen, but provides.  The rhythm of transformation may be off kilter, but at last brings us a Holmes and Moriarty like clash to the Doctor and his main Time Lord nemesis.  And it must be said, the Seventh iteration of the Doctor really can’t stand the Master.  In turn, the goateed Time Lord is more than happy to acknowledge the Doctor’s superiority in escape, before lapsing back into pure malice.

There are little moments of joy here.  The bored Doctor, the Master darker than he had been for some time.  But overall, it really shows how close the series was to getting it right.  Within two decades, a future Doctor would be similarly stalking an estate in London while tackling humanoid cats.

Yes, Survival brought the cement of the Powell Estate, Ghostlight brought the soap opera family of the Tylers.

Endgame…

The final three serials of Doctor Who’s classic years offer up moments that can sit happily next to the best in the show’s history.  True, McCoy never fully loses his clown, and he never reaches the same balance as Patrick Troughton but this was the year that secured him a place in Doctor Who history.  Not only that, McCoy’s Doctor seems far more alien than the character had been for years.  Actually, he wouldn’t be beaten until matt Smith.  As such, it was also the year that had the grace to make Virgin’s New Adventures an inevitability.

While there are pratfalls at the wrong time, but not all of them are. The Haemovores, a vampiric, amphibious – and crucially – potential evolutionary dead-end of humanity in the chemical wasteland of the far future. The alien, control-based survey team overwhelmed by evolution. The ultimate vision of nature over nurture.

In each of these serials, the writers aren’t shy of chucking in the kitchen sink.  But somehow it remains more effective than that modern version.

Unfortunately, the rot had set in long before and the scripts of Ian Briggs, Marc Platt and Rona Munro among others, under the editorship of Andrew Cartmel could never shout loud enough. After a far too prolonged period of entropy, Doctor Who wasn’t the fittest anymore. Those who wielded the axe were those who ripped the rug from the console room floor. Inevitable in a show with such a long shelf life, those in charge had increasingly been separated from it and its glory days.

One thing is clear though. Turning the show back to a focus on the companions was crucial.  On one hand it enables the Doctor to remain an enigma, enhances the mystery when done well.  On the other hand, it draws the audience in.  The Doctor’s story stays the same, it is the run of companions that bring change to the show and new stories to tell.  The greatest storytelling use the companions to investigate the Doctor and his universe…

But just when the show remembered its strength, it was put on hold.  But with its time trickery, biographical redemption and even skulking around after the puppet cats of Perivale, the Doctor had already laid in a timey-wimey way, the roots of its return when the TARDIS doors closed on 6th December 1989. Rose wasn’t such a leap. Doctor Who remained Ace. Doctor Who remained fantastic.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the, mope, complete Eighth Doctor in Whovember #8!

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

Fifth Doctor Whovember Jokertoon

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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)

Third Doctor Whovember Jokertoon

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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)

Sixth Doctor Whovember Jokertoon

6D

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!

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