Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Pirate Planet

Douglas Adams writes this one, and he is a really good fit for the good-humoured sci-fi the show has developed into lately. I definitely see more than a hint of Hitchhiker’s “big ideas” in The Pirate Planet. There’s the ridiculously advanced technology that allows a hollowed out planet to teleport around the universe, swallow up smaller planets and leech them of minerals, which recalls memories of a certain factory floor. The unmalicious threat to Earth itself is not unlike Vogons blowing it up because it’s in the way, and of course the charismatic self-congratulatory Doctor is not far removed from one Betelgeusian president. There’s also a chase sequence through an inertia-cancelling corridor that ends in one of the funniest moments I’ve seen in this show so far.

The Captain's base of operations. A godly "palace" atop the mountain, and a good looking model.

The Captain’s base of operations. A godly “palace” atop the mountain, and a good looking model.

The fact that it does all of this on a 1978 BBC budget is commendable. Douglas Adams paints a picture of a vast universe full of wonder without having to actually show it, which is perfect for Doctor Who. The dialogue offers up a lot of technobabble, and under any other circumstances, it might seem too much, but it really works here, and is frequently funny. The plot revelations are nicely spaced out and the whole thing is a rather enjoyable watch. My main complaint would be the apparent villain of the piece, the cybernetic Captain, who is just insufferable. I get that’s the point, but his blustering and threats are a pain.

The half-robotic Captain, with a robot bird on his shoulder that looks like Boba Fett. That's right, you can't unsee it now. Mwahaha!

The half-robotic Captain, with a robot bird on his shoulder that looks like Boba Fett. That’s right, you can’t unsee it now. Mwahaha!

Big ideas, snappy humour and some nice twists – this has all the ingredients of a classic. The Key to Time is worked into the story, thankfully without impeding on it, with no further mention of the guardians for now.

The Ribos Operation

By now, Tom Baker’s version of the Doctor is so well settled in, I can’t really imagine anyone else playing the role. Even the relatively poor stories have moments of humour and wit, or some banter that makes me chuckle. Even so, to stop things becoming stale, season 16 shakes things up a bit. Firstly, there appears to be a season-long arc running through it, as the Doctor is tasked by the White Guardian (who?) with collecting the six pieces of the Key to Time (one per serial over six serials, presumably). While this doesn’t really limit the Doctor’s adventures, it does focus his motives, which I suppose could be helpful.

The White Guardian has lost his keys and wants the Doctor to find them for him. Has he checked behind the sofa?

The White Guardian has lost his keys and wants the Doctor to find them for him. Has he checked behind the sofa?

Secondly, since Leela left (boo!), the Doctor is assigned new assistant Romana. Unlike previous companions, she is a Time Lord herself (or Time Lady?), so we don’t have the grounded frame of reference that we would get from a human character. So far, this hasn’t had a negative impact, but I fear Romana’s attitude could grow tiresome over time. As with any new character, however, I will give her the benefit of the doubt.

The Doctor and Romana infiltrate the treasury on Ribos.

The Doctor and Romana infiltrate the treasury on Ribos.

The story is a bit flabby and threatens to becoming boring, but it’s filled with lively characters and amusing accents, so it remains watchable enough. There are some undercooked elements, like the dragon creature or the witch, that add very little. K-9 returns in Mk.II form (identical) and saves the day with his magic laser beam. But it’s fine, not bad, not great.

Farewell to Garron and Unstoffe. I rather liked this pair of would-be thieves. Most of the extended cast performed well, actually.

Farewell to Garron and Unstoffe. I rather liked this pair of would-be thieves. Most of the extended cast performed well, actually.

It remains to be seen if the rest of the season can find interesting ways to present the hidden keys of time, and indeed whether anything exciting happens with it at the end. Right now, it does kind of feel like an irrelevant linking device. Previous “cross-serial” stories (see: Frontier in Space / Planet of the Daleks) have been disappointing in resolving answers, so I’m hoping for something better. On the other hand, The Keys of Marinus was pretty good, and this is giving similar vibes. Time will tell.

The Invasion of Time

The Invasion of Time picks up where The Deadly Assassin left off, with the Doctor exploiting Gallifrey’s ridiculous legal system again, this time to become President of the Time Lords. Why would he want to do that? Well, that’s where the mystery lies.

I'm still not entirely sure what the Doctor's plan entailed. Keep the invaders out by letting them in?

I’m still not entirely sure what the Doctor’s plan entailed. Keep the invaders out by letting them in?

It’s clear from the start that the Doctor is not behaving his usual self. This is the most crazed, absent-minded and bizarre he has ever been portrayed. Tom Baker’s ability to perform a masterful display of confusion, anger and misdirection is used by the writers here as an important plot point, since he must shield his true intentions from the invading Vardans. He does it brilliantly.

The Doctor offers the Vardans a jellybaby.

The Doctor offers the Vardans a jellybaby.

Sadly, the Vardans are not well developed villains. Aside from learning they can transmit themselves across energy waves and read minds (while appearing as shimmery tinfoil apparitions), it is later revealed that they are in fact human (what?). Once defeated, it’s as if the story ends and a new one begins, as they were actually being used by the Sontarans. It’s a tacked on ending, culminating in a chase through the corridors of the Tardis, which look like an old school or a warehouse and not in the least bit alien.

Sontarans are all supposed to be identical clones. That doesn't work out so well.

Sontarans are all supposed to be identical clones. That doesn’t work out so well.

The writing is witty, with plenty of funny lines from the Doctor and others, but it can be a bit too light-hearted for the situation. While the mystery lasts, the early parts of the story are quite good. I always enjoy some universe-building in sci-fi, and seeing the capital city of the Time Lords is a pleasure. We even see the wastelands arounds the city this time (albeit this is just some plains filmed through a red filter), and meet the Doctor’s old mentor, Borusa. For a season finale, it’s a suitably “big” storyline. What could be bigger than the Time Lords’ own planet threatened? But sadly it’s not very well thought out and doesn’t end well. Stor, the Sontaran captain, threatens to destroy the entire galaxy with a grenade he’s holding. Just think about that for a second: the entire GALAXY? Did someone tell the writer “quick, make up the biggest threat you can think of for the ending, don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense!”.

Completely out of the blue, Leela remains behind with Andred. I will miss her.

Completely out of the blue, Leela remains behind with Andred. I will miss her.

Finally, another sad note is the departure of Leela. I actually saw this coming, but I had expected her to remain in the wastelands and help the savages outside. Instead, these are quickly forgotten about and instead she falls in love with Andred the guard and stays behind with him. So stupid, and what a waste of a meaningful exit. She also keeps K-9 with her, which might actually mean something, except the Doctor leaves with a box with the words “K-9 Mk.II” written on it. Oh dear.

Underworld

There are some interesting ideas in Underworld. The Time Lords being gods to an ancient species who destroyed themselves and now seek a new home to repopulate their race is an intriguing concept. Set at the fringes of the known universe, the story also deals with stellar phenomena like planets forming within nebulae, and a second ship of colonists who have survived beneath the surface, only to serve as a slave race for a computer called the Oracle.

The Minyan ship is trapped beneath the rocky debris, almost becoming the heart of a new planet.

The Minyan ship is trapped beneath the rocky debris, almost becoming the heart of a new planet.

Sadly, it is at this point that the story takes a turn for the dull. Part 1 is quite exciting, I like the industrial design and the production values are good. But once beneath the surface, it’s a tedious sequence of chases through caves while the two groups fight it out. They don’t even use real caves, the vast majority of the episodes take place on a chroma key backdrop with some caves pasted in afterwards. It doesn’t look good.

Trapped after a cave-in. Don't worry, K-9 to the rescue - puppy power!

Trapped after a cave-in. Don’t worry, K-9 to the rescue – puppy power!

It’s not really explained how the Oracle came to be, nor from where the two robot guards originated. I like the idea of mission directives becoming ancient prophecies over thousands of years, but it isn’t well explored, nor is the idea of the Time Lords as gods, or the Doctor attempting to correct the mistakes of his people. Tricking the Oracle by swapping out the canisters with the explosives is also a pretty cheap way to end the story. There’s an attempt to tie the events into mythology, but it falls flat.

The Doctor mocks the Oracle. "You are NOTHING!"

The Doctor mocks the Oracle. “You are NOTHING!”

It’s not that there’s nothing to like, it’s just that the good ideas are not expanded upon satisfyingly, and the story somehow manages to drag even with just four parts. Some of it is good, but I was pretty bored in the middle.

The Sun Makers

Science fiction can be a powerful tool to convey ideas and opinions, by taking real world issues and abstracting them into a fantastical context. This can be done with subtlety and grace, or, in this case, as bluntly as a sledgehammer.

The Doctor and Leela stop Cordo from throwing himself off a building.

The Doctor and Leela stop Cordo from throwing himself off a building.

It’s an Orwellian nightmare, a farcical depiction of capitalism and religion gone mad, and I bloody loved it. An all-powerful company that works its people to the bone and charges them for the privilege of breathing, and even of dying! Its characters are obviously written as archetypes: a cackling ruler who revels in suffering, a snivelling servant with delusions of grandeur, and the downtrodden workforce wallowing in self-pity. Perhaps it’s too ridiculous to be believable, but that makes it all the more compelling. However silly, its themes are as relevant now as they ever were.

Gatherer Hade and The Collector.

Gatherer Hade and The Collector.

The writing is sharp, witty, intelligent, and the Doctor and Leela are on absolutely top form here. I have decided that Leela is my favourite Doctor Who companion of all so far, cemented finally by her scene with the underground rebels, in which she shows bravery, loyalty and honour in the face of cowardice. Meanwhile, K-9’s stun gun is used as a convenient get-out device, much like I predicted. However, I cannot be angry at that lovable little dog – his droopy tail when he’s told off is just adorable.

Leela leads a rescue attempt for the Doctor.

Leela leads a rescue attempt for the Doctor.

Despite the fact that the story is set on Pluto, the setting is decidedly Earth-like (although this is explained away in the plot). That said, I found the on-location filming to have a realism to it that worked really well here, even when it was just some corridors or the roof of a building. But, ultimately, it’s all about the plot, the ideas and the characters within it. This, really, is what science fiction is all about.

Image of the Fendahl

The third story from writer Chris Boucher again features an extended cast of likeable characters, and delivers another spooky mystery. However, this time, I feel the plot gets too tangled up in itself. I must admit, I was drifting off a little around part 2 or 3, and it never fully grabbed me.

The gestalt entity of the Fendahl, inhabiting Thea's body.

The gestalt entity of the Fendahl, inhabiting Thea’s body.

I’m not sure I could adequately summarise the plot. It mixes alien mythology with exogenesis and an energy lifeform preserved inside a glowing skull. Somehow, energy from an erased planet has passed through generations of space to find Earth, possibly guided our evolutionary path in order to make us viable hosts. Meanwhile, a cult has, for some reason, taken to this lifeform, the Fendahl, as a goddess, sacrificed a woman to host the creature, and then been betrayed when the Fendahl hypnotises them and turns other people into giant slugs? Which are also psychic but killed by salt. M’kay!

Leela saves the Doctor from the glowing skull by knocking him away and he falls on top of her. Though this could have easily led to some cliched sexual tension, there is none. The Doctor is all business. Well, business and jellybabies.

Leela saves the Doctor from the glowing skull by knocking him away and he falls on top of her. Though this could have easily led to some cliched sexual tension, there is none. The Doctor is all business. Well, business and jellybabies.

When the Doctor is basically pushing the plot forward by spouting technobabble, while the others look on in confusion, something has gone a bit wrong. Tom Baker manages to bring this nonsense to life, but it’s the human factor that makes the best moments of this serial. Whether it’s healing a shocked old woman by talking about fruitcake, or more solemn moments like handing a gun to doomed Max and saying “I’m sorry”, it’s these moments of humanity that make the Doctor such a compelling character. No theatrics, he quietly deals with it and moves on. Sometimes, people just can’t be saved.

Earlier, Max shoots Fendelman in the head. Off-screen, admittedly, but that's pretty dark for a family show in the 70s.

Earlier, Max shoots Fendelman in the head. Off-screen, admittedly, but that’s pretty dark for a family show in the 70s.

Image of the Fendahl is not averse to some dark themes, nor does it shy away from death, but it’s also quite funny in places too. It’s this mix of darkness and humour that I think plays so well, even today, and makes for some of the most entertaining episodes. The plot may have bored me a little, it may have been overly hokey and mystical for its own good, but at its heart remains a formula that works.

The Invisible Enemy

It’s the 50th century and mankind has ventured out into the solar system, but when a routine shipping vessel is attacked by a strange lightning cloud in space, the crew undergoes some bizarre changes.

The shuttle experiences a space anamoly. Somehow, electricity carries a biological virus, because... erm.

The shuttle experiences a space anamoly. Somehow, electricity carries a biological virus, because… erm.

I must say, for a story that deals with people becoming possessed by a virus that threatens to spread throughout the solar system, this is surprisingly breezy. The humour that has developed over the past few seasons is still here, but there is no real sense of threat or urgency to go with it. It’s all a bit lighthearted, while the plot is brisk and somewhat flakey. One moment they’re fighting for their lives against the infected crew, the next they’re whisked off to a hospital, the next they’re making shrunken clones of themselves and running around inside the Doctor’s brain. Weird.

For a lot of this story, the Doctor is either possessed or unconscious. It makes a change.

For a lot of this story, the Doctor is either possessed or unconscious. It makes a change.

This lightheartedness is also apparent in the show’s newest companion, the robo-dog K-9, who may as well be called Scrappy-do. K-9 is one of the few classic Doctor Who things that I’m aware of, so it’s nice to see where he came from. With his handy built-in stun-gun, I suspect he will be used as a convenient get-out clause whenever the pot calls for it… but that remains to be seen.

The paper print-out looks like a little tongue, aww!

The paper print-out looks like a little tongue, aww!

For the most part, the production in this story is actually really good. Some of the model work is excellent and the sets have a good futuristic style to them. The odd spelling on some of the signs caught my eye (“shutle” and “egsit”) – I’m assuming it was intentional, perhaps showing an evolution of language. Can anyone shed any light on this?

The villains are not very memorable, aside from the fact that the infected people grow hairy hands (wha-?!) and mutter catchphrases like ”we serve the purpose”.

The villains are not very memorable, aside from the fact that the infected people grow hairy hands (wha-?!) and mutter catchphrases like ”we serve the purpose”.

Elsewhere, however, things take a turn for the corny. The laser and electricity effects throughout all look a bit rubbish, the nucleus parasite costume is hilariously wobbly, and then there’s the frankly bizarre trip though the Doctor’s brain cells, in which the carbon clones are apparently able to walk around unhindered in the microscopic world. Sure, that was funny when Futurama did the same thing, but in a more serious sci-fi, it comes across very corny.

The laughably bad parasitic nucleus is made larger in the embiggening booth.

The laughably bad parasitic nucleus is made larger in the embiggening booth.

While I do appreciate a change in tone now and again, this was a bit weak. Full of “big” ideas but it rushes through them without consequence or drama.