Category Archives: season 25

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Circuses are kind of creepy, but if I had watched this serial when I was six years old, I would NEVER want to go to one ever again. The most memorable Doctor Who episodes have a way of taking something ordinary and twisting it into something terrifying, giving kids nightmares in the process, and this does exactly that.

I could have done without the rapping.

I could have done without the rapping.

Even now, as a grown adult, I have to admit that many of the scenes in this serial verge on the disturbing, such as when Ace is locked inside the workshop, and the bits of robot clowns start moving behind her. Brrr!! And those audience members with their lifeless faces and glowing eyes! And Mags turning into a werewolf! It’s got some good direction and lighting, and makes excellent use of some very limited sets.

Wonderfully creepy.

Wonderfully creepy.

But it’s also full of really great performances. Ian Reddington as the ‘chief clown’ does so much with so little. A simple hand gesture, a creepy smile, and he’s created a frightening foe. T. P. McKenna as ‘Captain Cook’ is a scary look into what might happen to the Doctor if he ever became selfish and complacent enough, putting others’ lives, even his own travelling companion, before his own. The other circus performers are a varied bunch and you really feel for their plight. And as for the Doctor, he is very quickly rising up the ranks of my favourites. He’s brilliant in this, and if those magic tricks at the end of part 4 are really all performed by him, I have a newfound respect for Mr. McCoy.

Cook and Mags, galactic travellers. Like holding up a mirror into a dark alternate universe.

Cook and Mags, galactic travellers. Like holding up a mirror into a dark alternate universe.

There are still hints of hokiness, some of the characters don’t quite work, and some of the production can’t avoid looking too cheap for what it’s trying to portray, but what this serial manages to do is turn its recent silly elements into creepy ones. Lighthearted humour becomes dark and twisted menace, and it succeeds by showing just enough to set the imagination at work. Its combination of direction, performance and production doesn’t have many of the weak links I usually expect from Doctor Who, and the musical score manages to maintain the creepy mood throughout.

Who let Harry Potter onto the show?

Who let Harry Potter onto the show?

While it’s not the greatest show in the galaxy, it’s easily the best serial since… oh, Caves of Androzani, certainly. That deserves a round of applause at least.

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Silver Nemesis

Another season, another disappointing Cybermen story, although I don’t expect much from them anymore. As this is their last appearance in the classic series, it is fitting that they go out with a bang, much like the Daleks did, but that’s not the only similarity with Remembrance of the Daleks – the plot is rather familiar too.

One more time. The Cybermen's final appearance in shiny jump suits.

One more time. The Cybermen’s final appearance in shiny jump suits.

So, there’s an all-powerful god-like statue thing (the Nemesis) about to collide with the Earth, that the Doctor sent into orbit in the 17th century, and the Cybermen have rocked up to Earth to claim it for their own. They have rivals also searching for the Nemesis, namely some 1988 neo-nazis (the Fourth Reich) and a time-travelling sorceress and her servant from 1638. There is little time to develop the character motivations, unfortunately, so we’re left with three underwhelming groups of villains.

The Doctor completes the living metal statue by giving it back its bow.

The Doctor completes the living metal statue by giving it back its bow.

There is some hint of a sort of non-linear storytelling early on, when Ace sees a painting of her in Windsor Castle that she hasn’t had painted yet, but nothing ever comes of it. The Doctor’s previous (unseen) adventure in the 17th century is alluded to, and there are some hints of a dark secret that he has that the Nemesis (and sorceress) knows of, but, again, it’s not explained. It’s just a tease, a way to inject some mystery into the character. Which is fine, but it was pointless here.

I wonder if the Tardis set was unavailable, because the usual machinations take place outdoors, using this upgraded tape deck.

I wonder if the Tardis set was unavailable, because the usual machinations take place outdoors, using this upgraded tape deck.

I do enjoy the anachronistic elements of these types of stories. Lady Peinforte and Richard walking around modern day England, struggling to understand the culture and technology, but these comedic scenes take away from the serious tone of the story. The bit with the Queen walking her corgis around the grounds is just plain weird.

They had to use a double for this sequence; the real corgis were busy.

They had to use a double for this sequence; the real corgis were busy.

Elsewhere, the Cybermen are relatively unthreatening, failing to hit their targets at close range, and falling for the Doctor’s rudimentary tricks. I don’t know if it speaks more of the Doctor’s cunning or of the Cybermen’s stupidity that his “piggy-in-the-middle” trick with the bow actually works. The Cybermen are all talk, no action. Ace takes out loads with some gold coins and by knowing how to duck. Ducking is a technique that solves so many confrontations, it seems!

The hidden cyber fleet orbits the Earth.

The hidden cyber fleet orbits the Earth.

This isn’t particularly good, then, but it has some fun humour and some of the action is good. While it’s hardly unwatchable, it is messy and, at times, rather silly.

The Happiness Patrol

Tonight’s episode of Doctor Who is sponsored by Bertie Bassett. I mean, really, just as the show is starting to improve, it descends into pantomime again. The Kandy Man probably seemed like a clever idea at the time, a squeaky-voiced sugar-coated psychopathic robot, but it’s just laughably bad to watch, and only adds to the overriding feeling of silliness in this serial.

The Doctor and Ace confront the Kandy Man. Those eyes! Those spinning eyes!

The Doctor and Ace confront the Kandy Man. Those eyes! Those spinning eyes!

Which is a shame, because it does have some good ideas, or at least good intentions. “What if it was illegal to be unhappy” is the sort of nightmarish scenario that creates some of the best conceptual science-fiction, however it’s just too broad to work. At every level you just think “that would never happen”. It’s just not feasible for anybody to enforce a society where happiness is mandatory. Not without some other sci-fi element at work, a psychic energy field or mood altering drugs in the water supply, something like that. The Happiness Patrol takes an all too simplistic approach – if you’re looking miserable, you’re put out of your misery. It’s satirical, it’s political, it’s possibly saying something insightful about the nature of happiness, but it just doesn’t hold together.

The Happiness Patrol. Smile, or else!

The Happiness Patrol. Smile, or else!

Fortunately, Sylvester McCoy is pretty great in this and I’m already warming to his style. He has an impressive range in just this one story, at one point talking a sniper out of shooting him by bluntly putting the nature of death in front of him, and then later roaring in fake laughter to confuse the armed guards. The other cast are not so good. Sheila Hancock is fine (particularly at the end when she’s crying over her dead dog puppet thing), but Georgina Hale hams it up with her nasally speech that ruins everything she says. The other cast are forgettable and Ace is her usual rebellious teenage self.

Nothing says "sad ending" like a dog dying.

Nothing says “sad ending” like a dog dying.

While some of the production is well-accomplished, the overall look of this serial is cheap and small. This is supposed to be a vast human colony, but it seems to contain a couple of tiny streets. It very badly looks like a small television or stage set, especially when the Doctor is making a getaway in his little buggy, travelling at a generous five miles per hour. Perhaps better direction could have helped it, but I’m not sure. The camera work in the tunnels is better, but not great.

Earl's blues playing is the highlight of the musical score. Mmm... melancholy.

Earl’s blues playing is the highlight of the musical score. Mmm… melancholy.

No, I’m afraid this one did not hit the mark. Its silliness, cheapness and naffness undermine any social point it’s trying to make, and I’m not quite sure what point that is anyway. Still, it has created something of an iconic villain, even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Remembrance of the Daleks

There has been an enduring image in my mind since age six, which is brought into focus whenever the word ‘Dalek’ is spoken. This is an image of the Doctor peering into the open top of a Dalek casing and a clawed hand or beak reaching out and grabbing him by the neck. This is my earliest memory of Doctor Who, an image that has stayed with me for 25 years, and I’ve finally found where it was from! Wednesday, October the 19th, 1988.

A strange sensation. The fine details have faded over the years, but I distinctly recall watching this scene 25 years ago (probably from behind the sofa).

A strange sensation. The fine details have faded over the years, but I distinctly recall watching this scene 25 years ago (probably from behind the sofa).

Remembrance of the Daleks has its own historic date, set as it is in 1963, taking place around the time and place of the very first episode, the school and junk yard in Shoreditch. There are plenty of references to An Unearthly Child, as well as an in-joke while Ace is watching a television broadcast, and the announcer almost says Doctor Who is about to start. It’s cute, but perhaps that’s taking an homage too far! The pre-UNIT military taskforce is investigating a Dalek incursion, and it turns out to be one of the best Dalek stories in quite some time.

A Dalek hovers up some stairs, dispelling the myth that stairs can thwart them! Funny, I wrongly assumed this didn't happen until the 2005 series.

A Dalek hovers up some stairs, dispelling the myth that stairs can thwart them! Funny, I wrongly assumed this didn’t happen until the 2005 series.

Remembrance is quite ‘plotty’, but not overly so. There’s the central focus on the two Dalek factions looking for the Hand of Omega to control time, and within the ruckus is the Doctor taking charge of the military and causing an awful lot of explosions. There’s some great misdirection, as we’re led to believe the renegade Daleks are commanded by Davros and the Imperial Daleks by the Emperor. There’s the mysterious little girl who seems to know more than she should. There’s the military man on the inside giving information to the traitorous group working for the Daleks. There’s even actual themes explored, like using the Dalek segregation as an allegory for racism. It’s a very smartly written story, all told.

That Dalek armour is no match for Ace's turbo-powered baseball bat.

That Dalek armour is no match for Ace’s turbo-powered baseball bat.

It’s also the first chance Sylvester McCoy has had to properly get into the character of the Doctor. He’s actually really good in this. Curious, cunning, quick-witted and commanding. He’s got the right balance of respect and annoyance for humanity and gets to give a good talking to Davros at the end. There’s a scene where he mentions to Ace about previous monster invasions (Yetis, Loch Ness monster), and the human capacity to deceive themselves, which is a knowing wink to the way everything on Earth seems to return to normal (a habit unbroken by the modern series). Ace is also turning out to be a capable and worthwhile character. She’s given a lot of the action roles in this, smashing up Daleks with a various weapons (baseball bat, rocket launcher) and diving through windows.

The Daleks bring in the heavy guns. A 'special weapons' variant. Nice.

The Daleks bring in the heavy guns. A ‘special weapons’ variant. Nice.

A lot of the production is set outdoors or in real locations, which does lend an appealing sense of realism. The visual effects are quite ambitious and the amount of explosions is insane. The “oh, I reprogrammed the McGuffin” resolution is perhaps a bit cheap, but wiping out Skaro is a dramatic conclusion, fitting for the Daleks’ final appearance in the classic era, making sure they go out with a bang (or several!). Remembrance starts to feel modern, in production, direction and writing, but it’s also my earliest (and perhaps only) memory of the classic era show. The title is appropriate, then, and the story is a good one. I enjoyed this a lot.