Monthly Archives: August 2013

Earthshock

I wasn’t sure what to make of Earthshock by about half-way through. The trouble with the Cybermen is, since Tom Baker encountered them in Revenge of the Cybermen, they’ve been a bit rubbish. For all their talk of lacking emotional weakness, they clearly display emotions themselves, from sadistic glee at watching others die, to frustration at being foiled. They’re just regular evil villains with a regular evil villain boss, and voices that somehow lack the creepy synthetic monotone of the 60s versions. Ironically, then, a downgrade.

The Cybermen watch clips of the previous Doctors' encounters with them. This was a nice touch. How things have changed!

The Cybermen watch clips of the previous Doctors’ encounters with them. This was a nice touch. How things have changed!

But in this case, I can forgive the slightly rubbish Cybermen, as the setup is one of the best. Unlike The Invasion, where Cybermen are already overrunning the Earth, here we have a classic isolated environment, a ship full of dormant Cybermen on a collision course. This potential doomsday scenario raises the stakes without over-egging the threat. Part 1 is a creepy little adventure in itself, as two of the android servants skulk around in a dark cave, picking off the squad of troopers, before the adventure is whisked off into space, troopers in tow. This is quite neatly written, with those fossils in the caves foreshadowing the explosive events at the conclusion, and the argument with Adric foreshadowing his ultimate demise.

The Doctor is letting the public into the Tardis a little too casually lately. Admittedly, the Cybermen forced their way in.

The Doctor is letting the public into the Tardis a little too casually lately. Admittedly, the Cybermen forced their way in.

This is not the first time a companion has been offed, but I wouldn’t count Katarina as a “main character”, so this is definitely a bold move. Admittedly, I never liked Adric, but I honestly didn’t expect him to die. The Doctor could be planning to go back in time and rescue him or something, but that would be pretty cheap. Besides, the silent end credits kind of said “this is final, be sad”. I applaud the bravery of finally doing this, of not simply concocting a last-minute rescue like every other story seems to do.

As is often the case in Doctor Who, the action scenes are poor. The lasers look particularly bad.

As is often the case in Doctor Who, the action scenes are poor. The lasers look particularly bad.

That’s one of the good things about Earthshock, how utterly powerless the Doctor is. He is completely at the mercy of the Cybermen, forced to do their bidding as officers and crew are killed around him. The conclusion is particularly clever, then; it’s not that the Cybermen failed to wipe out life on Earth, it’s just that they chose the wrong time to do it. Or the right time, depending on how you look at it. The rise of mammals are all thanks to them. Not content with simply burning down London, the Doctor is now responsible for sentient life developing on Earth. That’s pretty cool.

See ya, Adric.

See ya, Adric.

Advertisements

Black Orchid

I’m often critical of stretching or padding out stories over more parts than necessary, and although the show has settled into a rhythm of four-part serials, it’s still nice to shake things up now and then.

Nyssa meets her doppleganger, Ann. What is it with Doctor Who and dopplegangers?

Nyssa meets her doppleganger, Ann. What is it with Doctor Who and dopplegangers?

This simple two-part story was presumably quite cheap to make, with minimal effects and an Earthly location. It’s something of a holiday for the characters, too, who get to let their hair down and relax. Consequently, none of them irritate or frustrate like they would in a threatening situation; not even Adric, who spends much of the story filling up on buffet food. And the Doctor gets to show how good he is at cricket.

It's not like clowns aren't scary enough without there being deranged murderers inside of them.

It’s not like clowns aren’t scary enough without there being deranged murderers inside of them.

If anything, the larking about takes up too much of the runtime, with the mutilated murdering botanist plot having to wrap itself up in record time. I was quite enjoying the Doctor getting arrested and no-one believing his story, but that lasts for all of three minutes before we’re back at the mansion and rescuing Nyssa from the roof. The orchid explanation is blurted out as a mere aside to the action.

A horribly disfigured George Cranleigh abducts Nyssa, thinking she is his former fiancée.

A horribly disfigured George Cranleigh abducts Nyssa, thinking she is his former fiancée.

The plot may be brisk, and reliant upon a series of coincidences, but it’s a fun diversion. Not every story has to be a world-ending drama – there’s a lot to be said for simple character pieces, and this was a tragic tale in its own little way.

The Visitation

Poor Tegan just wants to get back to Heathrow Airport. Credit to the Doctor that he manages to land the Tardis in the right place, but unfortunately he’s about 300 years too early. It is by astonishing coincidence (or simply the Tardis’ “Adventure Detector”) that they land in the middle of an alien plot to wipe out London with a virus spread by rats. Yep, they did a “plague” story, and they started the fire of London too. What japes!

The baker's shop on Pudding Lane.

The baker’s shop on Pudding Lane.

At its heart, this is another monster/alien invasion story. It shares similarities with The Time Warrior, with the Terileptil alien hiding out and controlling a group of humans with mind control devices. He also has an android that he dresses up as the grim reaper. It’s a shame that the Terileptil’s motives are so one-dimensional, despite the attempt to sympathise with him because he’s an escaped convict and has horrible scarring on his face.

The Terileptil costume features moving lips. While it's still obviously a man in a suit (complete with muffled voice), it's a good effort. The scarred face is quite freaky too.

The Terileptil costume features moving lips. While it’s still obviously a man in a suit (complete with muffled voice), it’s a good effort. The scarred face is quite freaky too.

But somehow, this story worked for me. It’s a standard formula, but it’s good fun. The supporting cast member who plays the thespian actor-turned-highwayman is a particular highlight. It’s always fun to see period characters responding to futuristic or otherworldly scenarios, and Michael Robbins plays the part wonderfully. He’s such a lovable rogue, I would have been glad to have him along for more adventures. Alas, we’re instead stuck with Adric, Tegan and Nyssa. To be fair, they’re not too bad in this and they work together well. There’s a bit of action, a bit of humour, a bit of horror. Standard stuff, but it’s competently handled.

The Doctor and Mace stand ready outside the Terileptil's crashed escape pod.

The Doctor and Mace stand ready outside the Terileptil’s crashed escape pod.

The fifth Doctor has had a little time to settle in now. He’s more ‘human’ than the last one; you tell when he’s nervous or frustrated because his voice goes high-pitched and squeaky, bless him! He’s also had a bit more physical action so far, getting into fights and so on. One final noteworthy event: the Terileptil destroyed his sonic screwdriver! I was distraught! I’m not saying he deserved to burn in the fire at the end, but, well, I can’t entirely blame the Doctor for not pulling them all out of it!

Kinda

The Tardis lands in paradise, a peaceful tropical planet inhabited by a docile native tribe (the Kinda). As is often the case, the planet is also being occupied by a research group headed by a brash military leader with a disregard for the local life. However, unlike previous stories, this one doesn’t quite go the way you might expect. It is, frankly, weird. Very weird. (You might even call it a Kinda Surprise – I’m sorry.) It’s as if Avatar met The Twilight Zone and they both got drunk.

There's some lovely direction in this story.

There’s some lovely direction in this story.

Credit where it’s due, however, as the dream sequences are very creepy, using a high contrast filter and bright lights to really bring out a strong visual style. Interesting video effects continue into the latter half of the story as well, during the prophecy sequence and the reveal of the Mara snake creature. It’s a good effort to make a studio shoot look a bit more dramatic and interesting. In the case of the dream sequence, it works really well. These are some bizarre if not unsettling scenes; Janet Fielding handles these well.

The Mara snake was, shall we say... ambitious?

The Mara snake was, shall we say… ambitious?

Watching Hindle and Sanders go from uptight military officers to playful children is an entertaining transformation. For a while, Hindle is the sort of character you just want to punch, but he gradually becomes more and more tragic as the effects of the telepathy take hold. Adric plays the role of the suck-up again, although at least this time he’s got an agenda. Tegan spends much of the story asleep or possessed, and Nyssa spends the whole time recovering in the Tardis. The Doctor is like a teacher on a field trip, but I like him. His comment about an apple a day made me chuckle.

Hindle descends into madness.

Hindle descends into madness.

This story is fun and weird, visually interesting but suffers from somewhat poor plotting and drama. I think it’s because it tries to establish a lot of rules but leaves it too long and then asks you to go along with it otherwise the plot makes no sense. Suddenly there’s a psychic box that turns you into a child, oh but only if you’re a man, but actually you might be alright anyway (and it also turns the power off?), reincarnation, a demon from a dream realm and did you know evil snakes hate mirrors or something? And we never see the missing research staff – what ever happened to them?

Four to Doomsday

In Four to Doomsday, the four-strong Tardis crew meets four people from four cultures in Earth’s history on a spaceship and the story lasts for four episodes. It doesn’t end in doomsday, though.

The Doctor is nearly beheaded and shot.

The Doctor is nearly beheaded and shot.

The spaceship is one of the more lavish I’ve seen in Doctor Who. I suppose it should be expected that production values gradually improve over time (it’s been nearly twenty years since The Sensorites), but this one is particularly spacious, multi-storeyed and detailed with sliding doors, lights and functional-looking equipment. I dare say, if shot on film, it would look almost movie-quality. Its leader, the green-skinned Monarch of Urbanka, is also made-up with well-realised prosthetics for the show’s time. He’s also quite a charismatic presence, despite his tyranny.

"His Majesty", the Urbankan Monarch.

“His Majesty”, the Urbankan Monarch.

His devious plan does rather fall apart under scrutiny. Going back and forth between his home planet and Earth, to pick up figures from history and turn them into robot slaves or androids, seems like an awful waste of resources. Admittedly, the android reveal is a good one, the nightmarish imagery of a face being lifted up to reveal a hollowed out head and a circuit board can never fail to have impact – but as a concept, this is starting to become a little overdone. What a nice surprise, then, that the Monarch turns out to be a fleshy after all, and foiled by his own poison.

The Urbankans turned the Greek Philospher Bigon into an android. They should have just let Bigon be Bigon. (I am so sorry.)

The Urbankans turned the Greek Philospher Bigon into an android. They should have just let Bigon be Bigon. (I am so sorry.)

Special mention must be made about this Tardis crew, because frankly I’ve not encountered such a tiresome bunch as this. Adric is especially irritating in this story, and it pleased me greatly to see him get his arse kicked by Tegan. Tegan is hysterical, and to be fair, that’s to be expected, as she grows frustrated with the predicament she’s in and everything that’s happened to her. Sadly, seeing her flustering about the Tardis doesn’t make for enjoyable viewing. Nyssa is actually okay, but much like the others, she’s not particularly good at acting, or the part is just woefully underwritten. She faints at the end of the story, probably because she’s bored and wants something to do.

"Weeeeee!!!!"

“Weeeeee!!!!”

The Doctor, thankfully, is likeable. He’s retained his wits, his cunning and his curiosity, but now he’s just so… pleasant. He’s more of a positive role model for the companions, I suppose. Less of a nutter. I don’t have any problem with his performance at all. I could grow to be quite comfortable with him as the leading man. The space jump sequence at the end of part 4 was quite utterly ridiculous, though. Let’s ignore for a moment the problem of surviving in a vacuum… the Doctor is saved by a cricket ball, really? Hmm, maybe that’s ingeniously funny; it just didn’t bowl me over.

Castrovalva

In the grand scheme of things, regenerations do not occur very often in Doctor Who, and new performances should be savoured and enjoyed while they last. In many respects, the writers seemed to agree here, as Castrovalva explores the nature of regeneration more than any previous story. This isn’t even really a story ABOUT anything else. It is just about the Doctor trying to find a place to recover (the Tardis’s “Zero Room”, and later the peaceful city of Castrovalva), and the Master using all the tricks at his disposal to finish him off while he’s at his weakest.

A confused Doctor roams the Tardis, looking for the Zero Room. That scarf didn't suit him anyway.

A confused Doctor roams the Tardis, looking for the Zero Room. That scarf didn’t suit him anyway.

So, Peter Davison. He has some big shoes to fill. On the face of it, he seems perfectly pleasant. A clean cut nice guy, but lacking that dark undercurrent that Baker had. To be fair, it’s really too early to pass any sort of judgement. I will say that, early on, he does a fantastic job of impersonating Patrick Troughton while, in a confused state, he relives his earlier years. He even calls his companions Jamie and Victoria at one point, a lovely touch. But he is quick to attain a sense of identity, casting aside the recorder, unravelling his scarf, and picking up some new clothes and a cricket bat. As he says, he’s not feeling himself anymore, he’s feeling whoever he is now, and it’s “absolutely splendid”.

Do not trust this man. Not because he's actually the Master, but because he appears to be wearing two hats.

Do not trust this man. Not because he’s actually the Master, but because he appears to be wearing two hats.

With the Doctor out of action for much of the story, it falls to the companions to push the plot along. Unfortunately, these characters are weak and there hasn’t been enough time to establish them yet, so it doesn’t work out so well. Tegan displays a protectiveness over the Doctor that betrays the fact that she’s only known him for a day. Not to mention her Aunt was recently killed by the Master and she doesn’t even bring it up again. As for Adric, getting captured by the Master was probably for the best, but how exactly did that happen from within the Tardis?

Adric caught in the Master's web. Like a fly caught in a... web.

Adric caught in the Master’s web. Like a fly caught in a… web.

The entropy theme has been ditched completely (recursion seems to be the new thing now!) and events just seem to conveniently “happen” as the plot demands, rather than naturally forming. The Master’s plan just comes out of nowhere and stretches believability. Still, he gets what was coming to him. Some of the concepts are great, like the recursive structure of the city and the perception filter on its inhabitants. The Tardis being sent backwards to “event one” and having to eject a portion of its own mass is also a cool concept. And, ultimately, I did enjoy the new Doctor struggling to find his feet and come to terms with his new identity.

Castrovalva, as designed by M. C. Escher.

Castrovalva, as designed by M. C. Escher.

On the whole, there’s some good stuff here, but I did find it a bit underwhelming. It’s early days, and there’s a lot of potential ahead. I only hope I don’t spend the next three seasons thinking “well, he’s good, but he’s no Tom Baker”.

[The Fourth Doctor: Summary + Best Episodes]

The arrival of Tom Baker seemed to bring with it a change of tone – not for the first time. Since the character was more jovial (compared to the stern Pertwee version), the stories developed a humour to them as well. When coupled with dark themes, this gave some of the stories a distinctive style of their own. It added wit and charm to darkness and horror, and handled it all with confidence. I’ve watched this show gradually transform from melodramatic stage drama to rather ambitious TV sci-fi that pushed the envelope in many ways. Some serials, like The Deadly Assassin, made bold changes to shake up the format, and it’s been an interesting journey to work through them.

This era of Doctor Who is widely regarded by fans as the definitive era, the golden years, and I can see why. Certainly, seasons 13 and 14 represent a high point of quality and consistency. There are a few missteps along the way, and towards the end things start getting a bit stale, but nevertheless, this is the most consistent run of good stories so far.

Along the way has been a collection of companions who have perhaps been overshadowed next to the Doctor. Sarah Jane Smith was witness to the Doctor’s transformation from Three to Four but her potential was never fully realised. Romana was an attempt to match the Doctor’s intellect, but she was never developed much as a character herself (before or after her change of appearance). Leela was my favourite, being so out of touch with the world(s) around her, and providing a primal energy and resourcefulness that complimented the Doctor nicely. Her departure was weakly handled.

But before I agonise over my favourite serials, there is the matter of the Doctor himself.

Thoughts on the Fourth Doctor

What can I say about Tom Baker as Doctor Who that hasn’t been said countless times before? All I can add, as an outsider (coming from modern era first), is that I see exactly from where Eccleston, Tennant and Smith draw their inspiration. He IS the Doctor, the yardstick by which others will always be judged. Tom Baker portrays the Doctor as an eccentric alien, but maintains an air of humanity and compassion. He always gives the impression that he has a universe of thoughts running through his mind, evidenced by his absent-mindedness and in the way he changes his mind or contradicts himself and others at the drop of a hat.

He is able to be preoccupied by the smallest of things, like his scarf or jellybabies, even while the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. The way he faces down death with a smile, mockery and an undercurrent of threat, is just masterful. Such is the Doctor’s strong presence, that he is even able to assert his authority in any given situation, pretending to be somebody else or simply dodging the questions and taking charge, without the need for the ‘psychic paper’ McGuffin of later series.

If I have any complaints about Tom Baker’s version of the Doctor, it would simply be that some of his mannerisms start to wear thin. After seven years of TV (crammed into four months), that is understandable. Admittedly, offering jellybabies to people remained as funny to me as ever, but his contradictory plans, low mumbling punctuated with shouts of “come on” in the last couple of seasons did start to grate. The way he would escape death so often could weaken the sense of threat and drama. Also, on occasion, his character became a little too detached and inhuman, but this was a rarity.

On the whole, Tom Baker has been superb, so much so that even the poor stories are brought to life by his performance. He has effortlessly topped my list of Doctors, so my order of preference right now looks like this:

Tom Baker > Patrick Troughton > Jon Pertwee > William Hartnell

Episode Highlights

Picking out the cream of the crop of Tom Baker stories has been difficult. Not only do I have to choose from seven seasons of stories, more than any other Doctor, but there are just so many that are almost impossible to separate without being a bit ruthless. It would be easier for me to list the bad ones, or certainly quicker, or to pick twenty-odd serials that I thought were good enough to mention. Alas, I am imposing a limit of seven, which seems fair, so inevitably, some good ones slip through the net. A shame, as I enjoyed The Android Invasion and The Pirate Planet, for instance, but they won’t get a mention. Oh, hang on, they just did!

The Sontaran Experiment (2 parts)
A low-key tale of Sontaran wickedness and Time Lord cunning. Gripping sci-fi done on a tiny budget.

Pyramids of Mars (4 parts)
A change of scenery and an imposing villain add a lot to this well-written four-parter.

The Deadly Assassin (4 parts)
This mystery story changes to a darker tone, brings back an old villain and explores the Time Lords home world.

The Robots of Death (4 parts)
A “Who-dunnit” with robots, thought-provoking themes and a cast of likable characters.

The Sun Makers (4 parts)
An Orwellian nightmare pushed to farcical extremes, it is nevertheless very modern and watchable.

City of Death (4 parts)
A jaunty contemporary style makes this a lighthearted adventure in Paris and beyond.

The Leisure Hive (4 parts)
A solid story is backed up by the best studio direction and audio work I’ve encountered in this series so far.