Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Robots of Death

Fear, Assassin, Evil, Death – there’s certainly a dark thread running through the titles in this season!

A writer of crime drama and science fiction, Chris Boucher returns to write another Doctor Who story, successfully merging the two genres into one. This is a Whodunit (hehe, “Who”, geddit?) with robots, a crew of rich miners, set aboard a massive land vehicle drilling machine. In short, I loved it.

The enormous 'sandminer' is a great concept, and suits a murder story nicely.

The enormous ‘sandminer’ is a great concept, and suits a murder story nicely.

The robots in question are scarcely more than men in foil suits, but their blank masked faces and calm, soothing voices make them frightening killers, particularly in a society that deems the very notion of violent robots to be impossible. There’s a great explanation of “robophobia”, which is where a lack of body language is at odds with the humanoid appearance, leading to paranoia and anxiety in some people, including one of the poor characters here.

A surprisingly likeable cast of characters.

A surprisingly likeable cast of characters.

You’ve got to have likeable, or at least identifiable, characters when you make a murder mystery story, and The Robots of Death manages to achieve this where embarrassingly modern blockbusters like Prometheus fall flat on their face. Despite being a bunch of slightly snobby wealthy people, they have unique traits, natural dialogue and come across likeable and sympathetic. Meanwhile, new companion Leela is headstrong and feisty – I like her.

Accused of murder, the Doctor and Leela are restrained.

Accused of murder, the Doctor and Leela are restrained.

As well as a riveting mystery, this also has rather excellent production values. The use of miniatures is sadly unconvincing but is at least ambitious, and the sets are better than most so far. One minor complaint is the use of shiny metal materials – they do not react well on video. There’s regular splotches of colour as they reflect the studio lights. Another minor complaint is that the Doctor yet again arrives somewhere just as danger is happening, and gets accused of causing it, but they actually make a joke about it, which is self-referential enough to get a free pass.

A robot attacks another, thinking it's the Doctor.

A robot attacks another, thinking it’s the Doctor.

Speaking of humour, there’s an amusing scene in the Tardis at the start in which the Doctor explains how it can be bigger inside, using a big cube and small cube, which is basically the opposite of that scene from Father Ted with the cows. The Doctor is pretty great in this one, calmly smiling at death with a wit and charm that I can’t see any of the other Doctors managing to pull off. All of this despite a rather violent tone, plenty of stranglings and robots with creepy red eyes calmly announcing they’re about to kill, kill, kill. Amusingly, the mastermind is defeated by helium – brilliant!

Lovely stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Face of Evil

I do love a good mystery, and The Face of Evil has an intriguing premise which kept me hooked for at least three of its four parts. A savage warrior tribe possesses space equipment, the Doctor’s face is etched into a mountain, and everyone seems to think he’s “the evil one”… what could it possibly all mean?

Who exactly carved that massive face up there, anyway?

Who exactly carved that massive face up there, anyway?

The Sevateem’s familiar hand gestures, and the revelation that they are descendants of a survey team, were really clever, I thought. Less so the revelation that the Doctor had been involved before but forgotten about it. Seeing as they knew his current face, it couldn’t have been that long ago. Some adventure he had “between episodes”, then? It’s a little contrived.

The Doctor confronts Xoanon. "Who am I? Who am I? WHO AM I?"

The Doctor confronts Xoanon. “Who am I? Who am I? WHO AM I?”

I did enjoy this but, by the final part, I was starting to lose interest a bit. The savages / holy guards dichotomy is nothing new and a bit overdone, and the idea that Xoanon could control people’s minds came across too convenient to me, with not much of chance to reflect on some of the deeper ideas like using conflict to breed superior humans. There’s a lot of cool sci-fi ideas in this, even if they’re nothing new – a computer gaining sentience and questioning its own existence is always pretty fascinating, and I really enjoyed the mystery and build-up to it. I liked that the spaceship had become a kind of temple, with the themes of science and religion woven throughout. The invisible creatures in the forest are also well done, another part of the mystery.

"You'll have to repeat that, Leela; I was too busy looking at your legs."

“You’ll have to repeat that, Leela; I was too busy looking at your legs.”

This story also sees the introduction of Leela, a doubter of the teachings of Xoanon, who helps the Doctor to defeat him and leaves with him in the Tardis at the end. It would be easy to accuse Leela of being nothing but eye-candy in a skimpy tribal outfit, but in this story she is strong, self-sufficient and surprisingly intelligent for someone who has grown up in a primitive society. It will be interesting to see how she reacts to the wonders of the universe, or even the modern day, in upcoming adventures.

The Deadly Assassin

I’ve been waiting for a story to explore the homeworld of the Time Lords, and finally here it is. Having received a call to return to Gallifrey, the Doctor has a premonition of the Time Lord president being assassinated, and tries to stop it, only to get caught up in the very plot itself.

Part 1 ends with the impression that the Doctor is the killer. Quite effective!

Part 1 ends with the impression that the Doctor is the killer. Quite effective!

This is a really well-written and well-envisioned story, and very different in style from the usual. It’s quite dark, dealing with themes of murder, survival, conspiracy and politics, and none of the four episodes feels wasted on anything frivolous. In fact, in a stark change of pace, episode 3 is a lone fight for survival as the Doctor tries to uncover the identity of the real killer inside a harsh virtual computer environment. It manages to show that Doctor Who can work without a companion narrating on events – it’s twenty minutes of an almost wordless cat and mouse game, in which the Doctor uses his many talents to survive and gain the upper hand.

A fight for survival inside the computer matrix, which conveniently takes the form of a forest and a quarry.

A fight for survival inside the computer matrix, which conveniently takes the form of a forest and a quarry.

It’s also the surprising return of the Master, in a more horrific form. We learn that he has used up his twelve regenerations (first mention!) and is hanging onto dear life long enough to set up this assassination plot, with the intent of opening up the Eye of Harmony and saving himself, at the cost of destroying the Time Lords’ entire world. He’s not a charismatic character anymore, that’s for sure; he’s a grotesque monster, but as cunning and sharp as ever.

The monstrous Master attempts to draw power from the Eye of Harmony.

The monstrous Master attempts to draw power from the Eye of Harmony.

I do enjoy a bit of universe-building, and this serial is replete with information on the Time Lords’ history and culture. We also see just how different the Doctor is from his fellow brethren, rejecting formalities and continuing his juvenile tone. There are a couple of things I can take from this story: firstly, the Time Lords’ legal system is embarrassingly open to abuse; and secondly, the Doctor is not averse to killing when necessary. He does, after all, attempt to shoot the actual assassin at the ceremony (instead of getting the president away), and he fights Chancellor Goth to the death inside the computer matrix.

The Doctor blends in and mingles with the crowd.

The Doctor blends in and mingles with the crowd.

This is a real high point for Doctor Who, building up its lore while telling a compelling story, full of horror, intrigue and action. While I do wish the budget could have accommodated a larger scope (even just a matte painting of the capital city would have sufficed!), that’s something I can live without in this case. As for the Master, I was not surprised to see that he survives and escapes in his Tardis (shaped like a grandfather clock) at the end of the story, so no doubt he’ll return again soon.

The Hand of Fear

So, I figured the “Hand of Fear” would be some metaphorical thing, but no, it’s an actual hand, running around, possessing people and causing… well, fear. Neato! Actually, it’s quite a creepy scenario at first and the visual effects are pretty good.

In the reactor, the hand absorbs radiation and slowly regenerates from a fossil into a living creature. Chucking nukes at it probably didn't help, admittedly.

In the reactor, the hand absorbs radiation and slowly regenerates from a fossil into a living creature. Chucking nukes at it probably didn’t help, admittedly.

Set primarily in a nuclear power facility, this serial makes good use of an actual nuclear power station, thereby adding a touch of classy realism. The hand uses the radiation to grow its silicon-crystalline form back into a millennia-old alien ruler from the planet Kastria, called Eldrad. Although Eldrad has unsavoury goals, expectations are subverted when the Doctor and Sarah elect to actually help her. Expectations are subverted again when the her turns out to be a he and Eldrad reveals the truth of his past, his exile and destruction at the hands of his now deceased people, with a minor twist thrown in for good measure.

Eldrad, in female form, attempts to use her mind-reading power.

Eldrad, in female form, attempts to use her mind-reading power.

It’s quite a clever ending, really. It takes a while to get there, mind you, and the set up in the power station is perhaps longer than it needs to be, but on the whole it’s rather good. There are some funny moments too, like when they first arrive in a quarry and the Doctor says he can’t possibly know every single quarry they end up in. It’s disappointing that Sarah Jane gets possessed again as it’s a bit of a lazy trope now, particularly since this appears to be her final appearance. The closing scene aboard the Tardis is touching and natural, a perfect way to… well, part ways. It doesn’t feel forced or contrived; the Doctor simply needs to answer the call of the Time Lords… alone.

Talk to the hand, 'cos the face ain't listening.

Talk to the hand, ‘cos the face ain’t listening.

I’ve enjoyed Sarah Jane Smith as a travelling companion. I don’t think she’s the best (that title still goes to Ian Chesterton!) but, certainly with this incarnation of the Doctor, there is a rapport and a good-natured humour to their scenes. I think she could have been used more effectively, perhaps made better use of her background as a journalist (which is practically forgotten about), however I am sorry to see her go.

In a fitting conclusion, the Doctor attempts to drop Sarah Jane off in South Croydon and fails.

In a fitting conclusion, the Doctor attempts to drop Sarah Jane off in South Croydon and fails.

The Masque of Mandragora

Over the past 10 seasons, the Tardis has generally steered clear of travelling to the past, with very few exceptions. I suppose sci-fi is easier to do when it’s futuristic or present day, and to be fair, most of those early historical episodes were bloody awful. But this is a new era of Doctor Who, under new writers, new talent, in what is allegedly Doctor Who’s “Golden Age”, and so this four-part serial set in 15th century Italy actually turns out to be pretty good after all!

Giuliano and Marco.

Giuliano and Marco.

By now, Tom Baker is really settling into the character of the Doctor. Not just settling in, but actually making the character his own. The way he faces down death with a joke, perfect comic timing, mockery and an undercurrent of threat, is just masterful. There are moments in this story that had me genuinely laughing out loud, in particular when the clan of cultists are about to sacrifice Sarah Jane to their god, and the Doctor casually slides her out of the way of the falling dagger. He regularly looks death in the eye with an insane smile on his face, and he escapes believably because he does what nobody would expect. It’s brilliant.

Sarah is casually saved from being sacrificed. "Yoink!" *grin*

Sarah is casually saved from being sacrificed. “Yoink!” *grin*

This could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill story – certainly, cultists worshipping an alien they think is a god is nothing particularly new – but it’s raised to something far better simply because of how good the Doctor is throughout. It’s also pleasing to see a sympathetic character in Giuliano, someone who embraces scientific reasoning over superstition and actually trusts the Doctor’s judgement – however this is undermined somewhat by the alien being a big ball of magic fire. The Doctor can call it “helix energy” all he wants, it’s basically a fiery ghost thing that possesses people.

It's like a meeting of the Death Eaters, without the wands.

It’s like a meeting of the Death Eaters, without the wands.

There’s a running theme of identity and disguise. The Mandragora alien possesses Hieronymous, blanking his face; the cultists all wear elaborate masks; there’s a masquerade party that the cultists infiltrate; and of course, the Doctor saves the day by dressing up as their leader. In one scene, he even wears a lion head and growls, it’s rather amusing.

The Doctor graciously accepts some salami as a parting gift.

The Doctor graciously accepts some salami as a parting gift.

A noteworthy opening scene shows, for the first time, a tour of the Tardis interior corridors, leading to a second control room. This is the first indication that there even are multiple control rooms, that the Tardis is effectively infinite inside, and the scene is played out with a sense of humour too. It’s nicely done.

The Seeds of Doom

The Seeds of Doom (unrelated to The Seeds of Death, incidentally) starts in the Antarctic, when an excavation uncovers an alien plant pod. As the pod opens, infects one of the humans and turns him into a plant-like creature, I expected a run-of-the-mill monster story all set within the base. An isolated location, cut-off from the outside, with danger of death all around.

The frozen plant pod is dug up from under the ice.

The frozen plant pod is dug up from under the ice.

But the story actually only spends two episodes there. The base is blown up and a second pod is taken back to England, whereupon the stakes are significantly raised. Another infected human becomes an enormous monstrosity (a Krynoid) that threatens to turn all plant life on Earth against humans, and replicate itself into more man-eating monsters and take over the planet. To be honest, I preferred it when the stakes were lower, but I must admit, this one is well done.

The giant Krynoid attacks the mansion!

The giant Krynoid attacks the mansion!

It is a monster story in the truest sense. There’s no attempt to reach an understanding with the creature, despite it showing its intelligence. We’re left to the Doctor’s word that it is an unstoppable evil that must be destroyed, and who are we to question him? But the human face to this evil is Harrison Chase, a millionnaire plant-lover, who I was sure would turn out to be an alien himself (he’s so oddly calm and strange), but he is simply a madman who succumbs to the power of the plants.

Chase tries to infect Sarah Jane with the plant - all in the name of scientific curiosity.

Chase tries to infect Sarah Jane with the plant – all in the name of scientific curiosity.

Nevertheless, most of the characters are more memorable than usual, and even Chase’s thug-for-hire (Scorby) has a personality that almost makes you feel sorry for him, probably because he’s played by John “Boycie” Challis and gets more than two lines of dialogue. Meanwhile, the Doctor does his thoroughly enjoyable routine of calm mockery and occasional shouting, and this time does a surprising amount of physical fighting too.

The Doctor narrowly escapes a messy end, then nonchalantly claims that would have been a waste.

The Doctor narrowly escapes a messy end, then nonchalantly claims that would have been a waste.

It doesn’t shy away from a bit of violence, either real or implied. Chase’s sticky end in the vegetable grinder is more ‘clean’ than one might realistically expect, but it was probably a hard job to get away with what they did! Elsewhere, you have vines strangling people, giant tentacles smashing through windows and another explosive finish as UNIT calls in an airstrike to kill the creature in the nick of time. On this whole, it’s fairly good, and hasn’t aged as badly as you might expect.

The Brain of Morbius

The last couple of seasons have seen an increase in frightening imagery, grotesque monsters and grisly horror, and this comes to a head (ho-ho!) in The Brain of Morbius, which is basically a classic horror story in sci-fi clothing.

"Yesh mashter."

“Yesh mashter.”

In an obvious adaptation of Frankenstein, a crazy scientist (Doctor Solon) and his hunchbacked assistant (Condo) are building a creature out of spare body parts in a spooky castle on a misty night. I assume they’re in the Cliché District of Parody City, but it doesn’t specify (actually, it’s planet Karn). An evil Time Lord called Morbius, long thought to be dead, is sitting in a jar in Solon’s lab, a floating brain waiting for a new body to be completed.

The brain of Morbius, in a jar. For some reason, it glows when it talks.

The brain of Morbius, in a jar. For some reason, it glows when it talks.

This must have been one of the scariest Doctor Who stories at the time. Unfortunately, as an adult, it looks too corny and fake to me, but any kids in 1976 would have been given nightmares at the sight of a headless monster sitting up, not to mention people getting killed, beheaded, shot and burned alive. Even for me, it’s decidedly creepy; the moment when Solon is measuring up the Doctor’s head makes me wince just a little.

Sarah regains her sight moments before the Morbius monster attacks.

Sarah regains her sight moments before the Morbius monster attacks.

This story also introduces some more Time Lord lore in the Sisterhood who guard an elixir that they use for eternal life, and that the Time Lords have used to prevent failed regenerations. During the final battle of minds, I also enjoyed seeing the many past faces of the Doctor (and, presumably, Morbius?) being displayed on the screen. Having recently seen ‘Nightmare in Silver’, where a similar scenario occurs, I see a definite homage here!

A battle of the minds, the Doctor versus Morbius.

A battle of the minds, the Doctor versus Morbius.

As for the Sisterhood itself, this small group of cultish space witches did not make for good viewing, particularly with all the irritating chanting they do. The Doctor makes a good point about the futility of life without death, but the words ring hollow when spoken by a 749 year old Time Lord, and the Sisters go on using the elixir at the end anyway.

"Sacred fire, sacred flame..." Shut up!

“Sacred fire, sacred flame…” Shut up!

Overall, as a corny horror story, this was fine. I would have liked to see Morbius fleshed out more, as he comes off as little more than a ravaging monster. Sarah Jane gets to act blind for a while, which she does well, but I am getting tired of the way her hysterical lines are delivered as though she’s hyperventilating. I can’t stop noticing it now! The Doctor is remarkably watchable and gets some great lines. I love how matter-of-fact and calm he is in ridiculous situations.