Monthly Archives: July 2013

Meglos

An alien cactus on a desert planet disguises itself as the Doctor and tries to steal a dodecahedron from a neighbouring planet and blow it up. I mean, what?! It’s the sort of ‘out-there’ idea that Doctor Who throws at you every now and again. It’s great to watch Tom Baker play the role of the bad guy as well, particularly all made up with spikes sticking out of his face and hands, and there are some pretty good visuals too (including some impressive motion controlled ‘bluescreen’), but beyond that the story is a let down.

The Earthling struggles to break free from the CactusDoctor.

The Earthling struggles to break free from the CactusDoctor.

It’s not terrible or boring or anything, but there are a few too many clichés, like another crew of idiotic bandits, or K-9 blasting open another door with his laser, or the chanting religious cult performing a sacrificial ceremony (again!). The story plays with the idea of a culture that wants to study this great power source that it relies on, with a subset who wish to simply worship it as a god, and the tensions that spring up between the two, but there’s little exploration of the themes of faith versus reasoning. In fact, very little is learned about the dodecahedron at all, other than it is very old, very powerful and can be used as a weapon of mass destruction. The priestess dies in an attack, so she never has to live in a world where her god does not exist.

The time loop sequence in the Tardis was amusing for a while but went on for too long, and the solution makes basically no sense.

The time loop sequence in the Tardis was amusing for a while but went on for too long, and the solution makes basically no sense.

Lots of little things like that are glossed over quickly. The jungle planet of Tigella is one minute lethal to its inhabitants, and in the last two minutes it’s suddenly a rich source of all their needs and everything will be fine! And the time loop that Meglos was able to create in the Tardis… erm, how? Is he the last of a race of time-travelling cacti or his knowledge of temporal engineering specific to him? The poor Earthling whose body he inhabits, where the hell did he come from (well, Earth, obviously)? And so on, and so forth.

The Doppledoctor takes an oath to the god Ti.

The Doppledoctor takes an oath to the god Ti.

A noteworthy bit of casting is Jacqueline Hill as the priestess Lexa, who previously played one of the first companions Barbara from way back in the beginning. Going from a rational teacher to a zealous cultist is certainly a change from one extreme to another, but it was nice to see her again.

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The Leisure Hive

Oh, hello 1980s! I saw you there, peeking around the corner. Nice of you to finally drop by. What’s that you’ve got there? A wicked new spaced out title sequence with cool synthy music and electronic guitar riffs? How thoughtful! Come right this way, you’ll fit in perfectly around here.

The leisure complex, protected from the toxic atmosphere outside. The desolate image gels wonderfully with the soundtrack.

The leisure complex, protected from the toxic atmosphere outside. The desolate image gels wonderfully with the soundtrack.

Season 18 gets off to a terrific start, but how much of that is down to its fresh new audio-visual style? It’s not just the synthy soundtrack (reminding me of Blade Runner), but improvements on direction, composition, camera movements and so on. The Leisure Hive is about as good looking as a studio-shot Doctor Who serial has ever looked so far. Wikipedia tells me the director was Lovett Bickford, but it also tells me he didn’t direct any more after this. What a pity.

Pangol admires his new army.

Pangol admires his new army.

The plot is as science-fictiony as it gets, hinging on the temporal properties of tachyons and the need to rejuvenate the dying Argolin race. There’s a tragic history, a nuclear war, ongoing racial discomfort, a supposed ‘monster’ who turns out to be no such thing, a power struggle, a cloning machine, time-reversal and rapid aging. It’s full of neat imagery – the Doctor being pulled limb from limb as part of a trick is as memorable a cliffhanger as they come, I’m sure – and his transformation into an elderly man is very well performed. The disguised Foamasi sub-plot was a bit ‘Scooby-Doo ending’, but I’ll give it a pass. The ‘silly’ humour is mostly absent here. The tone is more serious, and I think it suits.

An elderly Doctor talks to one of the Foamasi.

An elderly Doctor talks to one of the Foamasi.

The Black Guardian from two seasons back also gets name-dropped, and with the ‘randomiser circuit’ removed from the Tardis, the implication is that they’ll be running into him again in future. Although I can’t see that having a practical effect on the situations the Tardis finds itself in, if their adventures are as interesting as this one is, I’ll be very happy with that.

The Doctor falls apart. An enduring image!

The Doctor falls apart. An enduring image!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to try to get that awesome new synthy theme tune out of my head. “Wooeeewooooo, dun-dun-dun-dun-dun…”

Shada (Not Televised)

I wasn’t sure whether to cover Shada, the cancelled sixth serial of season 17. Unlike the reconstructions from the sixties, Shada was never actually finished, and has to date never been aired on TV. However, rather than worry that it would make the events of the story irrelevant and not expected to exist within established continuity, instead I thought “well, why not?” and watched it anyway. Approximately 50%-60% of the serial was made, and an older Tom Baker narrates the events that occur inbetween.

Romana, K-9 and Parsons are trapped in a prison cell - one of the few scenes aboard the ship that were finished.

Romana, K-9 and Parsons are trapped in a prison cell – one of the few scenes aboard the ship that were finished.

Shada actually explores the Time Lords’ history and lore. I have no idea if any of this is revisited in future stories, but Shada is the name of their prison planet, which was purposely hidden from official records by one of the former inmates, who went into hiding on Earth as a professor at Cambridge. When a maniac with a god complex goes looking for this professor and the prison planet, the Doctor and Romana get caught up in a plot to take control of every mind in the Universe!

Skagra, looking for information on Earth.

Skagra, looking for information on Earth.

Due to the nature of TV production, the existing scenes are all from the same locations, so watching this now can lead to visual fatigue. As much fun as it is listening to Tom Baker talk, he does whizz through his descriptions of the missing scenes all too quickly. Some animation or artwork of these scenes would have helped to break up the repetition. Still, it’s interesting to see where production stopped back then. There’s a fair bit of outdoor location shooting, some interiors of the spaceship were shot, and the rest is from the professor’s room (which it turns out is another Tardis). Sadly, there is very little existing footage of the villain, Skagra, or his monsters, the Krargs.

So, apparently Doctor Who did the "invisible ship lands in the park" thing years before Star Trek IV (and later copied by Red Dwarf).

So, apparently Doctor Who did the “invisible ship lands in the park” thing years before Star Trek IV (and later copied by Red Dwarf).

While watching Shada is a frustratingly incomplete experience, overall I was glad to see it. It hasn’t got the same level of silly humour as Douglas Adams’ other episodes (although it does have some), but it still touches on some big concepts and has some fun with the universe and characters. This would have been a pretty good season finale.

The Horns of Nimon

The Horns of Nimon is another space adventure with more unconvincing monsters. This time, however, it draws more than a little inspiration from Greek mythology, namely the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.

A faulty Tardis requires an unorthadox boarding method.

A faulty Tardis requires an unorthadox boarding method.

There’s the horned beast itself, the Nimon (Minotaur), who resides inside a maze-like facility and receives sacrifices for him to eat. Even the characters and races have similar names, like Seth (Theseus) and the Anethans (Athenians), etcetera, and the Doctor even refers to the ship at the end being painted white. Yes, it’s all very clever. Have a pat on the back.

The horny beast itself, the Nimon.

The horny beast itself, the Nimon.

So unconvincing are the Nimons, that I was actually hoping they’d turn out to be people wearing oversized masks and it was all a trick. Well, it does turn out to all be a trick, but the monsters are quite real, an invasion of nomadic bull-like aliens who trick planets into giving them their energy sources and then suck them dry. It’s not a bad story, and the plight of the Skonnon people is quite tragic, but it’s all written with very broad strokes which robs it of interest. Their leader, Soldeed, has a great vocal presence, which makes his scenes theatrical and overblown, and that’s fun to watch.

Having never seen any of these episodes before, I was surprised to recognise the line "he says many things", until I realised it was sampled for a track on Cassette Boy's 'The Parker Tapes'. How cool!

Having never seen any of these episodes before, I was surprised to recognise the line “he says many things”, until I realised it was sampled for a track on Cassette Boy’s ‘The Parker Tapes’. How cool!

Set design has a considerable amount of fine detail, with cables and buttons everywhere. Plenty of pyro effects too, and another explosive finish to top it off. Horns of Simon (sorry) may not be all that great, but it does at least look fairly good. Some of the scenes have a creepy vibe to them as well, such as when we see the rows of suspended bodies, or the corpse that turns to dust. Otherwise, this was unremarkable. Not bad, not great, just okay.

Nightmare of Eden

Nightmare of Eden is an unusually complex story, centering around a smuggling operation in space, and a mystery of who is involved with it. Like all good mysteries, it’s fun to see it unravel and the pieces fall into place, like the hidden monsters, the portal machine, the odd behaviour of the navigator, the mystery of the missing crewmember, and so on. Touching on themes of animal captivity, drug-trafficking and class discrimination, there’s a lot crammed into four episodes.

The Doctor's ability to assume authority in any situation is demonstrated perfectly in the first episode.

The Doctor’s ability to assume authority in any situation is demonstrated perfectly in the first episode.

For the most part, I found this to be quite enjoyable. It’s a bit slow to get going, some of the characters grate and, let’s be honest, the Mandrels look silly, but it has a lot going for it too and the production design is good for its time. Some of the Doctor’s lines are fantastic including the one about his date of birth. Tom Baker delivers these so naturally and deadpan, it’s great fun. He also blurts out the technobabble without breaking a sweat.

The two ships separate from their matter-entwined state.

The two ships separate from their matter-entwined state.

Elsewhere, some of the comedy oversteps the line into silliness again, as per when the Doctor is being chased by the Mandrels in the Eden projection. K-9, too, is used as an all-too-convenient plot device or to save people with his handy ray-gun. And Romana… well, she continues to be a bit of a non-entity. Ever-helpful and capable, but lacking a defining characteristic. She’s not bad, just a little bland.

A mystery man protects Romana from the encroaching Mandrel.

A mystery man protects Romana from the encroaching Mandrel.

The Creature from the Pit

While I wouldn’t go as far as to call this the worst Doctor Who story ever, this is the silliest. The premise is perfectly sound, with an alien ambassador looking to trade metal for nourishing chlorophyll with a planet rich in vegetation, who gets mistaken for a monstrous invader and forced to live in an underground mine for years. The ruler, Lady Adrasta, wants a controlling monopoly on the metal market, which has led to a nation ruled by fear, and the creature in the pit used as punishment.

A group of bandits plan to ransack the palace.

A group of bandits plan to ransack the palace.

There comes a point where light-hearted humour becomes daft silliness, and I think this story is that tipping point. For example, having been thrown into the pit, the Doctor, clinging on for dear life, finds the time to reach into his pockets and pull out a book on climbing Everest, discovers it’s written in Tibetan, then pulls out another book for learning Tibetan. The whole sequence is played for laughs but it feels very silly. Then there’s the creature’s tentacle, sliding around the mines. I don’t know if this was played for laughs as well or if it’s just unintentionally hilarious, but the thing looks… unfortunately phallic. I nearly burst out laughing when it appeared. I couldn’t take it seriously.

I mean, COME ON!

I mean, COME ON!

Then there’s the wolfweeds, living balls of plant-stuff that roll around at the beat of a whip (huh?), K-9 being used as a talking raygun (lame), and a sequence where the creature encases a neutron star with metal (far-fetched). To top it off, it’s not even a particularly interesting story; I was bored by it.

K-9 features prominently in this story, having been absent for a while, but now with a different voice. I don’t like the new voice very much - it’s lost its quirky charm.

K-9 features prominently in this story, having been absent for a while, but now with a different voice. I don’t like the new voice very much – it’s lost its quirky charm.

City of Death

The Doctor takes Romana on a school trip to Paris. No, not really, but that’s what it looks like. As they actually went to Paris to film this one, there is an awful lot of on-location scenes, running around the city while jaunty music plays, presumably in an effort to get their money’s worth! Well, that’s fair enough, and the 1979 Parisian setting does lend a certain contemporary style to the proceedings.

The Doctor, Romana and Duggan debate the merits of art before bidding farewell.

The Doctor, Romana and Duggan debate the merits of art before bidding farewell.

It’s fortunate that the Doctor and Romana decide to take a holiday then and there, because it’s precisely the location where an ancient alien survivor is plotting to build a time-travel device to go back 400 million years and destroy all life on Earth in an attempt to stop himself from being fractured across time. It’s a big idea, but it’s woven into a very silly premise in which said alien is planning to steal the Mona Lisa and sell a load of copies, having convinced Leonardo Da Vinci to paint six duplicates. That doesn’t really make sense, but it’s just one of those things you have to go along with.

The last of the Jagaroth race, Count Scarlioni's true appearance as Scaroth.

The last of the Jagaroth race, Count Scarlioni’s true appearance as Scaroth.

It’s a fairly breezy story in all, with temporary ally Inspector Duggan playing the amusing roles of confused outsider and convenient muscleman. While I can see that there is an element of silliness developing in Doctor Who, at the moment it is still within the comfortable realm of light humour, and in this case I think it’s appropriate and effective. I found City of Death to be very enjoyable, with a good (if ridiculous) premise and an entertaining cast of characters. I’m still not sure about the new Romana, but the Doctor continues to be the star.

A very amusing cameo appearance from John Cleese. I did laugh. Job done.

A very amusing cameo appearance from John Cleese. I did laugh. Job done.