Monthly Archives: April 2013

Revenge of the Cybermen

This season of Doctor Who has been presented as one continuous journey, as the Doctor, Sarah and Harry travel by Tardis, transmat beam and time ring from one adventure to the next. Not letting the expensive Ark in Space sets go to waste, our heroes return to Nerva space station thousands of years earlier, when it was simply a beacon for travelling ships, only to find that it has had the worst luck in space history, having been the target for a Cybermen attack!

The crew of Nerva beacon are dying from a space plague... or are they?!!

The crew of Nerva beacon are dying from a space plague… or are they?!!

Seeing the Cybermen in colour for the first time should be exciting but, being silver, they don’t actually look any different. Their voices in this story are terrible, almost devoid of electronic sounds, and far too emotional, too human. Their plan is to blow up a rogue planetoid (Voga) that contains a vast supply of gold, because apparently gold is deadly to the Cybermen. Once this is done, they will be free to invade Earth or something. They enlist the help of one of the Nerva station staff, who appears to be a traitor but is actually working for the Vogans to destroy the Cybermen on the station with a rocket from the planet and the- oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.

The Vogans have a bit of a shoot up because... erm, something something.

The Vogans have a bit of a shoot up because… erm, something something.

Even Harry has trouble keeping up as he struggles at one point to fill the Doctor in on what’s happening. I’m starting to like Harry, with his chipper attitude and stiff-upper-lipped-ness, although for a trained medical professional, he does often play the fool.

The Cyberman boss has a different colour head.

The Cyberman boss has a different colour head.

I don’t know how they managed to make a Cybermen story both convoluted and boring, but somehow they did. The Vogan power struggle is boring, much of the dialogue is too dry, the Cybermen are unthreatening and if it wasn’t for Tom Baker being occasionally entertaining, the whole thing would have been bust. I lost the plot around part 3 but I suppose the conclusion was exciting, and at least it was only four parts long. It’s a shame it wasn’t better because the rest of this season has been of unusually consistent quality and now it’s ended on a bit of a duff note.

With the Tardis returned, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry return to Earth. Apparently the Brigadier is having a spot of bother…

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Genesis of the Daleks

Even for a newcomer, Genesis of the Daleks has a reputation that precedes it. However, this six-part serial has perhaps been hyped up too much over the years, and watching it for the first time, I’m left just a little bit underwhelmed by it. I think there’s always going to be a problem when introducing a face to a villain whose main appeal is their facelessness. It happened to Star Trek when they introduced the Borg Queen too.

For most of the story, the Daleks are simply the soldiers of Davros. I found this a little disappointing.

For most of the story, the Daleks are simply the soldiers of Davros. I found this a little disappointing.

That’s not to say that Davros isn’t a thoroughly entertaining villain – his travel machine, robotic eye and electronically-enhanced voice are an excellent precursor to the death machines he goes on to create. His feeble physicality is inversely proportional to his ambition, and yet, despite his hideous visage, he is still revered and trusted enough by his fellow Kaleds (I see what they did there) to pull the wool over their eyes, right up until the end.

Crippled, mutated, injured? The origin of Davros himself is not explored in this story, it's left to the imagination. All I could think was "how did the actor see what he was doing?"

Crippled, mutated, injured? The origin of Davros himself is not explored in this story, it’s left to the imagination. All I could think was “how did the actor see what he was doing?”

It’s probably his interactions with the Doctor that are most memorable here. In one scene, we have Davros almost frothing at the mouth at the prospect of holding the power of life and death over the Universe… while a later scene sees the Doctor struggling with the same moral dilemma, as he decides whether or not to destroy the Dalek embryos. It’s a fantastic scene, one of the more thought-provoking in this whole series so far, and it serves as a good exploration of good and evil. But perhaps I just wanted more from the origins of the Daleks. A last minute betrayal adds a touch of tragedy to the tale, but otherwise it’s as straightforward an origin as you could imagine, and one that was already alluded to well enough during their first appearance in 1963.

The wires rigged to detonate the Dalek embryos - the fate of the Universe lies in the Doctor's hands.

The wires rigged to detonate the Dalek embryos – the fate of the Universe lies in the Doctor’s hands.

The ambiguity over the ending leaves the Daleks’ fate up in the air, which is how I would prefer it. Was history changed, delayed or kept exactly the same? Clearly the Time Lords felt it was possible to alter history (despite the Doctor’s previous insistence that it can’t be done), and it was good to see them finally break their non-interference directive. It added to the epic scope of the story, and I enjoyed seeing the early conflicts of the Thals and the Kaleds played out on screen.

The Doctor is interrogated for information on the Daleks' future defeats.

The Doctor is interrogated for information on the Daleks’ future defeats.

Six parts was probably more than it needed, as evidenced again by the ‘captured, escaped, recaptured’ plotting early on, and some of the less memorable secondary characters. I could also be picky and argue the merits of the science behind this one: really, the Kaleds’ natural evolution is one that relies on machines that haven’t been built yet? How would anyone believe that? Moreover, in the original story, wasn’t it supposed to be radiation that altered (and sustained) the Daleks, not genetic manipulation? And just where did their reliance on static electricity come from?

Sarah's escape plan goes pointlessly wrong, but it does get Sevrin the mutant on her side. I say "mutant" but he appears to just have a limp.

Sarah’s escape plan goes pointlessly wrong, but it does get Sevrin the mutant on her side. I say “mutant” but he appears to just have a limp.

Still, nitpicks aside, this is the best Dalek story Terry Nation has written so far. He clearly loves his Dalek creations as much as Davros himself, so it’s no surprise that he’s gone back and written what was previously only imagined, more than ten years later. It wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, but it had the feel of an epic adventure with the highest of stakes, while exploring the origins of Doctor Who’s most famous villains and introducing a memorable new face to the lore. Tom Baker is also excellent in it, but I’ve come to expect that as standard now.

The Sontaran Experiment

The Sontaran Experiment is an interesting detour, following on directly from the previous serial, but telling its own self-contained story. Human colonists who arrived on the deserted Earth have been attacked and experimented on by a Sontaran scout, in preparation for a galactic invasion. Big story, wrapped up in two parts. It’s refreshing!

The Doctor stands in the circle of transport beacons on an unspoilt new Earth.

The Doctor stands in the circle of transport beacons on an unspoilt new Earth.

What it shows is that you don’t need to spread a plot thinly over six episodes to make it good – brevity is often a virtue. The only reason most serials spread themselves so thinly is because of budget requirements. But I think The Sontaran Experiment also shows that you don’t need a big budget to tell a compelling sci-fi story either. This takes place entirely on some hills (no sets), and reuses some old costumes. And yet, it’s a compelling tale of human survival, Sontaran wickedness and Time Lord cunning.

The Sontaran's robot scout captures the colonists.

The Sontaran’s robot scout captures the colonists.

I could have done without the Doctor’s Miraculous Escape From Death™, but for the most part he outwits the Sontaran, Styre, with skill and intelligence. He also gets angry, calling Styre an unspeakable abomination as he tries to throttle him one, which adds believability to the Doctor’s character. He gets some funny lines too, explaining to Harry how you should never throw anything away and then moments later telling him to never clutter his pockets with stuff. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane gets captured again. Sigh.

Styre examines his captives.

Styre examines his captives.

The Sontaran head prosthetic looks a little different from the last time it was used (despite Sarah mistaking Styre for Lynx) – more rubbery, but I think it’s an improvement. There’s also an excellent effect when Styre is killed and his head deflates like a balloon, which is wonderfully freaky. Sontarans are good villains, inhuman, remorseless, but bound by routine and procedure. His experiments on the human colonists are not malicious or evil, he simply does not care about them, blithely describing the procedures in his log, which makes them all the more frightening.

The Ark in Space

Leaving Earth and UNIT behind, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry depart in the Tardis and wind up thousands of years in the future, on a space station filled with the last of humanity, cryogenically frozen, orbiting the Earth, awaiting their wake-up call.

The last of humanity, preserved in stasis while the Earth is hit with solar flares. There's more than a hint of mythology about it.

The last of humanity, preserved in stasis while the Earth is hit with solar flares. There’s more than a hint of mythology about it.

Obviously, things go wrong: the humans have overslept and an alien lifeform is oozing itself around the Ark, infecting humans and turning them into hosts for its offspring, resulting in some rather excellent and scary make-up effects, and some rather rubbish looking insect costumes.

The Wirrn's adult phase.

The Wirrn’s adult phase.

This is a strong serial on its own terms. The close-quarters environment and small roster of characters in a perilous situation makes for compelling viewing, and pleasingly wraps itself up in just four parts. However, the trouble with having seen every episode is that some of the concepts start getting recycled. Aliens infecting humans in a spaceship has already been done countless times, and the whole ‘ark full of the last humans’ idea was already done rather brilliantly in the Hartnell four-parter The Ark, which had the added bonus of a time-travel-induced twist.

A partially-transformed Noah. Close-up, that looks like green bubble-wrap. Still, it does the job.

A partially-transformed Noah. Close-up, that looks like green bubble-wrap. Still, it does the job.

So, it’s the execution that matters, and this was a more standard monster story, with some interesting ideas, like the monsters (the Wirrn) being able to accumulate knowledge from their hosts and pass it to their offspring. The Ark sets were also pretty good with a sterile futuristic aesthetic, which is matched by the cold and unfeeling personalities of the chosen humans.

The Ark... in space.

The Ark… in space.

The Doctor is, again, a pleasure to watch. He’s never patronising, he’s quite blunt with people about their prospects for survival but he does it with a cheerful smile. He also has some good banter with Harry; the part where they’re trapped behind the table with the sentry gun is good fun. The cast of companions is more rounded now, but this has put Sarah Jane in the position of the “scared girl” who nobody listens to and gets captured (aside from the end where she helps run a cable through a tight conduit). I hope this doesn’t continue. Why should Sarah be panicking while Harry is calm and cheerful about the situation? It should be more of a shock to him.

The set design is great, but this curved corridor doesn't appear to match the shape of the exterior.

The set design is great, but this curved corridor doesn’t appear to match the shape of the exterior.

The story ends with the Ark saved and the aliens ejected in a shuttle, but the Doctor’s work is never done, as he ‘beams’ down to planet Earth with Sarah and Harry to check out its viability for life, leaving the Tardis in orbit.

Robot

I may not have seen any of these old Doctor Who episodes, but it’s hard to miss how popular Tom Baker is. Many consider him the “Definitive Doctor”, the one to beat. I am very much looking forward to seeing how he pans out over the next few seasons.

The newly regenerated Time Lord awakens...

The newly regenerated Time Lord awakens…

My initial impression is that he is a bit mad! Dressing up as a clown, skipping, offering people sweets, grinning with that wide-eyed expression that says both “I’m having a laugh” and “don’t mess with me”. But at this point, it’s hard to judge him because all new regenerations are a bit mad at first, they take time to settle in, get into a rhythm, adjust to their new character. For now, it seems as though he has transformed from an old man into a child, in much the same way as he did when he went from Hartnell to Troughton. It’s a positive change, if you ask me. After all, there’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes!

The Doctor is examined by the doctor. Thump-thump, two hearts.

The Doctor is examined by the doctor. Thump-thump, two hearts.

This story is not a space epic but a more down-to-earth adventure. The threat is from a local group who have built a deadly robot and stolen an advanced military weapon and nuclear launch codes. A perfect warm-up for the new Doctor, then. It’s your typical monster story, except the monster is an indestructible robot with a conscience, and a design straight out of a B-movie. It’s fairly good, but when it introduces the idea of living metal and the robot becomes enormous, it stretches believability a bit (okay, a lot). There’s also the coincidence problem again, as Sarah Jane just happens to visit a scientific group called Think Tank, who just happen to be the ones behind the robot. The plotting is too convenient.

The group known as Think Tank has a super secret meeting in which they reveal all of their plans.

The group known as Think Tank has a super secret meeting in which they reveal all of their plans.

There’s a lot new to enjoy here. The new Doctor, of course, and an even better title sequence – but also former writer Robert Holmes now on script editor duties, which bodes very well for the series going forwards. There’s also a new companion, UNIT’s medical officer Harry Sullivan, who appears to be joining the Doctor on his travels, which should make for more interesting stories. Finally, the biggest change in this serial is a visual one, as all of the outdoor shooting was done on videotape for the first time. While it loses the cinematic feel of celluloid, it does create a smoother, cleaner and more consistent look, and integrates better with the ambitious special effects sequences in part 4. Once I got over the “home video” look, I found it quite easy on the eyes.

When the robot is referred to as “K1”, my first thought was “when do we get to see the ninth?”

When the robot is referred to as “K1”, my first thought was “when do we get to see the ninth?”

So, all in all, a thumbs up. The story wasn’t anything special, but it looked good and was the right length. Moreover, Tom Baker is entertaining in all of his scenes, gets some great lines, and is such a refreshing change from Pertwee. He has an energy and enthusiasm that carries his scenes well, and I’m eager to see more.

[The Third Doctor: Summary + Best Episodes]

Colour picture wasn’t the only change to Doctor Who for its seventh season. In fact, far bigger was the change to Earth-based stories and a stronger emphasis on story arcs and recurring characters. Some of these quite successfully showed that you could still have exciting adventures and alien threats without actually leaving home, while others demanded a larger canvas to work and suffered as a result. Still, one benefit to the Earth-based stories was the regular presence of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, the most entertaining recurring character to appear on the show so far. The arrival of the Master also did a lot to improve the eighth and ninth seasons, although he did become overused and something of a crutch.

I think the third Doctor’s era started to get quite stale. The rota of companions didn’t really change enough, with the rather bland Jo Grant sticking around for too long. Even when his exile was ended, the Doctor still stayed with UNIT. Another problem I had with some of these was the sheer length of some of the serials. The four-parters were mostly fine, but some of the six-(or seven!)parters were just drawn out tedium, particularly in the early serials where every story seemed to feature the same setup (science facility goes wrong, creatures appear, corrupt leader denies everything, etcetera, etcetera.). Really, it fell to the Doctor himself to carry these stories, and this was done with mixed success.

Thoughts on the Third Doctor

I would have to describe Jon Pertwee’s Doctor as predominantly “grumpy”. This is partly down to the situation the character found himself in, exiled and surrounded by fools, and thankfully his character loosened up a bit once he had free reign again. But even then, he was not a joyful, playful type at all. He was very stern, very authoritative, overly confident in his abilities to the point of arrogance, and often quite patronising. Even when he was trying to be nice, he had this way of making his friends feel like children who couldn’t possibly understand.

There were some superficial similarities with the previous incarnation, and in Spearhead from Space, he was actually quite funny and nice – but then he did spend much of that story unconscious. There were also moments throughout his five seasons where he opened up a little. Jo certainly brought out the lighter side in him now and again, when he might reminisce and tell a little story, or say something inspirational. There’s no doubt this was a clever man, burdened with centuries of knowledge and feeling rather weary for it, but he just wasn’t alien enough. He was, basically, a normal grumpy man, but he knew how to fight. Venusian Akido – very useful.

There were very few moments of comic relief or silliness on the Doctor’s part, and I think that’s a shame, because when it did happen, Jon Pertwee was very good at it. Even so, I thought his acting in general was good and convincing, and for that reason I would still put his character above William Hartnell’s version. So, if we’re going to do one of those order of preference things, so far mine is as follows:

Patrick Troughton > Jon Pertwee > William Hartnell.

Episode Highlights

Picking out my favourite serials from Jon Pertwee’s run has been pretty easy, really. The quality of stories is not as consistent as with previous series, so the good ones spring to mind quite readily. Also, there are no more missing episodes to worry about, everything is complete and on equal footing (some missing colour aside). These are my top picks:

Spearhead from Space (4 parts)
A short story with a fresh style, and the best of the third doctor’s character.

Inferno (7 parts)
A little long, but plays with the parallel universe concept to excellent effect.

Day of the Daleks (4 parts)
A thought-provoking time travel story that uses the Daleks well.

The Time Monster (6 parts)
Potentially hokey but goes full-on insane brilliant.

The Three Doctors (4 parts)
Contrived setup but easily excusable because it’s lots of fun and Troughton is a delight.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs (6 parts)
Ropey effects aside, this is a really good plot, well thought out.

Planet of the Spiders

So, apparently, Jon Pertwee’s final serial was supposed to conclude the Master’s story arc, but due to the death of Roger Delgado, they had to come up with a new finale. Which is a shame, firstly because he died so young, and secondly because Planet of the Spiders just isn’t very good.

Sarah Jane is remarkably chummy with Yates, considering he previously tried to erase civilisation from history!

Sarah Jane is remarkably chummy with Yates, considering he previously tried to erase civilisation from history!

Robert Sloman has gone back to his weird occult type storylines, with monks, a cult of spider-worshippers, telekinesis and chanting. Oh god, the chanting, make it stop! “Om! Om! Om!” There’s also some cringeworthy bit part performances – the police officer is awful, the colonist woman is even worse – but some of the imagery, like the spiders hanging onto people’s backs and controlling them, is effective and quite unsettling. Arachnophobes should give this a miss!

"Argh, get it off, get it off, get it off!"

“Argh, get it off, get it off, get it off!”

The conveniently useful blue crystal that the Doctor picked up from Metabelis III (The Green Death) turns out to be more important than ever, as the spiders need it to enhance their mind power and rule the Universe. Although these spiders (mutated Earth spiders from a crashed colony ship in the future) have grown and developed serious mind control abilities, the weird revelation here is that all humans have the same natural potential within them. This was written in the era when ‘ESP’ was considered a real thing, so it’s understandable, but the concept hasn’t aged well. The rules seems to arbitrarily change, too. The spiders’ energy attacks are at one point deadly, another point not, at one point deflected by certain minerals and another by innocence of mind. It’s like they’re making it up as they go. And the worst part is when the Doctor gains the ability to teleport into another room for no discernible reason. What?!

Trapped in the spider webs, waiting to be eaten.

Trapped in the spider webs, waiting to be eaten.

The plot just lumbers along unevenly. There’s far too much filler, like the car chase that turns into a flying car chase then a hovercraft chase, taking up most of an episode to do so, and ending in nothing. Conversely, the Doctor’s trip to Metabelis III is conveniently instantaneous. There’s also another instance of the Doctor being nearly killed but miraculously surviving, which is even less necessary here because of the regeneration in the final episode – why pull the same trick twice?

The Doctor confronts The Great One.

The Doctor confronts The Great One.

As usual, it’s the final moments when anything of interest happens. The Doctor bravely enters the irradiated crystal caves to confront the Great Spider, who blows itself and the mountain up (yet another explosive finish!). The abbot of the monastery turns out to be a Time Lord, in fact the Doctor’s old mentor whom he previously mentioned. He gives the Doctor some advice and also turns up at the end to give his regeneration a little push.

Sarah Jane Smith and Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart watch in astonishment as the Doctor’s appearance changes. “Here we go again...”

Sarah Jane Smith and Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart watch in astonishment as the Doctor’s appearance changes. “Here we go again…”

The transformation from Jon Pertwee to a fresh-faced Tom Baker is not as seamless or drawn out as his first regeneration, consisting instead of a disappointing cross-fade. Still, I was glad to see it happen at last!