Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Impossible Planet written by Matt Jones and directed by James Hawes

This story in a nutshell: An old fashioned New Adventure novel turned into a two part spectacular...and a pretty good one at that.

Mockney Dude: Aside from one scene, this is one of the more responsible takes on the tenth Doctor in his first year. If he was the Doctor that was supposed to be the most human then that is achieved in spades here as he feels like a regular Joe trapped in an impossible situation and trying to do his best. He's smart and funny and personable but doesn't exhibit too many of those overt quirks that make the Doctor stand out from the crowd. It's probably what make David Tennant such an attractive prospect to the audience at large. The only moment I wanted to rip out his intestines and strangle him with them was when he was trying a little too hard to be a nice guy. Where he asks for a hug because humanity is so insatiably curious. It's the sort of cloyingly sweet sentiment I expect from's that New Adventures mentality that used to get me in such a state. Aside from that though Tennant is riding high on the enjoyment of his first year. He might not has realised at this point just how much the audience would take to him but it's clear there is a natural confidence and charisma that he exudes in the part.

Chavvy Chick: It is a funny old business, I do like it when there is a third companion, partly because it gives the show more dynamics to explore but also because John Barrowman and Noel Clarke genuinely bought something quite special to the show once they had settled into their roles. However when it comes the Tenth Doctor and Rose, a third wheel simply exposes the weaker aspects of their characters, namely their ignorance of how much they are hurting the third member and how involved in themselves they are. Take away the selfishness of their intimacy and their relationship is far sweeter, as it was in The Idiots Lantern and here. David Tennant and Billie Piper have something of a controversial relationship in the history of Doctor Who, fandom seems to have had an allergic reaction to them working together but as far as the general public are concerned they can do no wrong. Their chemistry this season is palpable but their carefree existence and smugness lacks the hip unity of Piper and Eccleston's relationship, it feels far more selfish. And yet it scores on such a domestic, emotional level that the audience at large could really buy into it. The Impossible Planet is where things shift up a gear, where we're building up to that extraordinary climax to the season. This is back when the relationship between the Doctor and the companion was as important as the plots, where the beats between them have a real impact. This episode exposes the richness in their partnership, both the characters and the actors. The Doctor's quiet despair at being trapped without his TARDIS is rectified slightly by the sweet moment where he and Rose talk about settling down, both of them too shy to admit they would choose to live together. This truly is a love story, the only time you could point to a Doctor and companion and swear they were so wrapped up in each other that it could actively be called a romance. Rose's admission that 'everybody has to leave home' and that being trapped in this situation is not so bad because she is with him are possibly the most mature scenes the character has ever had and all the better because they are understated and bashfully performed. Bravo. Also Rose's gentle kiss of the Doctor's helmet suggests an intimacy between them that surpasses anything we have seen before without stripping them of their dignity and getting all sweaty. It's just the two of them and for one they aren't so obsessed with each other that the situation feels insignificant. Instead the scenario that is playing out is as operatic as their relationship. The two work in real harmony.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The bitter pill. I like it.'

The Good: Imagination soars as with all the best Doctor Who stories. The Ood are a marvellous idea, a slave race that only reaps pleasure from serving others but with such a stomach-churning appearance. Loads of scope to be damn creepy and yet sympathetic at the same time, slaves of the humans or the Beast. Aesthetically they are unlike anything we have ever seen before, enough to turn your stomach but proving to be rather sweet until they are used like puppets. The big reveal that the base is affixed to a lump of rock orbiting a Black Hole is well presented to make the viewer gasp and gawp, helped no end that it is visually spectacular as well but bonus points for holding this off for ten minutes. Had this been a regular one-off episode this would have been tossed in the air before the opening theme. The science might be wonky but it feels like dangerous place to be and that is vital to any horror story. It is a terrifying thought being sucked into a black hole and the episode wastes no time in demonstrating the power of this phenomenon, Murray Gold's effective strings accompanying an entire star system being consumed by the gaping maw in space. The idea of a great evil under the ground waiting to be unearthed might not be original but it is a cliche for a reason, it's an enjoyable conceit. It turns a dark and gritty episode into an unnerving one, especially when the nature of the beast below is revealed. I am not easily scared. I think Doctor Who has managed to give me the shivers maybe three or four times in its entire run but there was one scene in this episode which terrified me more than any other that I have seen in TV or film for years. It was impeccably filmed, crawled under my skin and festered. Toby stands outside the base in the airless vacuum without a spacesuit before the black hole. His eyes are blood red, his face is stained with alien scrawl and he is grinning at Scooti. A beautiful smile of pure evil, beckoning him towards her. The glass cracks and she is sucked, screaming into space. I love the tiny moment between the Beast controlled Toby and the security officer where he tells him that his wife never forgave him. It's a backstory that we are never privy too but a line that opens a world of possibility for the character. It's some skillful character writing. Part one is more about exploring the setting and concepts, the slower paced second episode is where the guest characters are vivisected but this is a story that was heavily influenced by Davies and so powerful character nuggets cannot help but creepy through. It's lovely to see some grit in the new series, I remember Russell T Davies saying how much he channel hops and stops on the show with the prettiest picture regardless of how good the show is. Doctor Who this season is perhaps a little too pretty: New Earth, Tooth and Claw, The Girl in the Fireplace, and The Idiots Lantern, all feature gorgeous productions with attractive imagery but it all looks a bit too NICE. Here we've got all the style but instead we're jumping down below decks with the workers. The sets are dirty, unsteady, filled with smoke... it really helps to put across the sense of clinging on to this rock for dear life. I like the contrast of the futuristic setting with the modern costumes, nothing too flashy but casual and comfortable just how you would want to be in that environment. Lighting is exceptional throughout, especially during Toby's murder scene and the Doctor and Rose's settling down conversation. I like how well thought through the structure of a working day has been considered in this story too. In science fiction I can pretty much forgive a multitude of sins if the situation is presented in a believable way. That doesn't necessarily mean in a contemporary way but as long as it establishes its own rules and sticks to them (or breaks them for the sake of good drama) I can usually immerse myself in that world. And the impossible planet is an easy world to immerse yourself in.

The Bad: The cliffhanger is utterly deceptive, especially the way it is filmed. It looks as if something terrifying is rising out of the pit but we discover in the second episode that that wasn't the case at all. The crane shot really makes you believe that whatever is below the base is on its way out. 

The Shallow Bit: It's the base of the good lookers. Fortunately they can all act too.

Result: I remember when his two part story first aired vividly, I did not have high hopes for the story. Whilst I loved Matt Jones' novel Bad Therapy, a very sweet character piece in the final third of the New Adventures, I couldn't stand Beyond the Sun, his Bernice Summerfield novel and I regularly found his column in DWM the most annoying thing about the magazine. The episodes themselves seemed to have the least compelling 'wow factor' in series two (no sign of Cassandra, Queen Victoria and werewolves, Sarah Jane or Giles from Buffy, Mickey as a companion or the return of Steven Moffat, Cybermen or Maureen Lipman as the villain). The trailer wasn't exactly thrilling and the best thing you could say about it before it transmitted was that 'that bloke from Casualty is in it'. Oh what a stupid fool I am. Hype is one thing (who wasn't disappointed with New Earth?) but a show firing on all cylinders and proving what it can do in every department is another and that is exactly what The Impossible Planet does. It is practically flawless technically and I genuinely feel it had the strongest cast yet assembled for the new series until this point (the two parters two thirds into series three and four would eventually surpass it in that regard). The Impossible Planet was a wonderful surprise, an episode that restored the the faith in series two after three mixed episodes in the middle of the year. The script is exemplary, heavily edited by Russell T. Davies and is on par with the best of the year. Matt Jones has written a damn good script, on par with the best of either year. The story is packed with great ideas and they are dramatised very well. This is a textbook case in how to effectively build up tension, spend the first fifteen minutes setting the scene and introducing the mystery, then mid-episode introduce some major problems for the characters to react to before your big reveal in the last third which gets everybody on the edge of their seat thinking it has all gone to hell. Jones has written an extremely strong cast of characters, so successfully thought through that the death of somebody we have only known for twenty minutes has a major impact. Whilst the cast are responsible for bringing these people to life, they really don't have anything to work with if the script is lacking. At this point it was the strongest ensemble to date and the chemistry between the actors is palpable The Impossible Planet is real edge-of-the-seat drama and an attempt to be scary that succeeds on just about every level. It's a great example of Doctor Who doing its best to give you nightmares before you go to sleep. It's almost a shame it is broadcast in the daylight. Do yourself a favour and tape it and watch it later in the dark on your own. I was captured by this when it was first broadcast and it holds up very nicely almost a decade later: 9/10

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Pyramids of Mars written by Lewis Griefer and directed by Paddy Russell

This story in a nutshell: 'I bring Sutekh's gift of death to all humanity...'

Teeth and Curls: Season thirteen sees Tom Baker give his darkest, possibly his most compelling, interpretation of the character. Maybe it's just when he is directed by Paddy Russell (there are tales of creative differences) but he's in an unusually brooding and black mood in this piece, which, like Horror of Fang Rock, suits the material. I never once doubted this man was an alien, such was his disturbing and inhumane reaction to events. Several moments during Pyramids of Mars are seminal Tom, as important as his moral debate in Genesis of the Daleks, his agonised rant in The Pirate Planet or his fizzy humour in City of Death. It is worth noting how little time the Doctor has for the incidental characters in this story, his lack of reaction to Lawrence's death and his seething justification of it are extremely powerful. Confronting Sutekh in his tomb we get to see the Doctor at his heroic best, walking into a death trap to stop this dark God obtaining his freedom. The Doctor locking horns with a God from the Dawn of Time. That's an intoxicating idea. 'Then I abase you Sutekh... you are a twisted abhorrence!' It's brilliant stuff and all the better for Tom's vicious delivery. This is why his scenes with Sarah are so important. There is an unspoken warmth between them, the desperate Time Lord attempting to stop a being 'even more powerful than anything even I have ever encountered' and the inquisitive journalist ('You mean Sutekh is still alive?'). In his scenes with Sarah he shows a glimpse of humanity and it's vital to cling onto those moments. All the oft-quoted scenes are genius because they are the only moments of intimacy in and otherwise bleak story ('Your shoes need repairing', 'Don't be so pedantic at a time like this!'). They really are made for each other, Sarah proving more resourceful than usual (looking ultra cool holding that rifle!) and able to drag out that cheeky smile of the Doctor's despite his sour mood.

Investigative Journalist: Elisabeth Sladen looks beautiful in her Victorian finery and glows in a story that is starved of beauty and warmth. It's a script that gives her a lot of cool things to do and say. If somebody pointed at this story as the one that portrayed a companion at their finest I couldn't possibly disagree. Sarah gets to be resourceful and a bit useless, brave and frightened, humane and crack jokes, run from the monsters, ask the right questions, scream and proves invaluable (dressing the Doctor up, calling off the mummies, firing the pistol). Even more, she highlights the Doctor's strengths ('We've got to go back') and weaknesses ('Sometimes you don't seem... human!'). She is pivotal to the story's success and Lis is divine throughout. In her autobiography she states that Paddy Russell made the actors over play every scene until the creative spontaneity was strangled from the story. It might not be her chosen way of working but I cannot deny that I think this is possibly her strongest performance in a very consistent run so I have to side with the director on this occasion.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Deactivating a generator loop without the correct key is like repairing a watch with a hammer and chisel... one false move and you will never know the time again.'
'All life is my enemy. All life will perish under the reign of Sutekh the Destroyer.'
'Perhaps he sneezed?'
'We don't want to blamed for starting a fire... got enough of that in 1066!'
The Good:
* More than any other I can think of, Pyramids of Mars is about death. Robert Holmes has always said he wanted to scare the kids he was watching (I have an image of him as a shadowy spectre in their bedrooms at night waving his fingers and making disturbing shadows on the bed) that were watching and with this story he has proven that no-one could do it better. Steven Moffat has tried his damnedest to wrestle the mantle off him but there is something very clinical and obvious about the way he goes for obvious childhood fears. Death is frightening concept (especially for children) and encapsulated perfectly in the character of Sutekh, who wants nothing more than to destroy everything he touches. Shockingly it isn't the celebrated moments that impress (or scare) me but those moments that remind you of your own mortality, how you could be here one second and gone the next. As the victims pile up so does the twisted manner of their death. Collins the butler is murdered from behind, a terrifying concept, not even knowing that death is approaching. Namin is killed because of his faith in death (Sutekh), his murderous actions paid in kind as a black robed messenger of death leans down and takes his life now his role is over. Warlock is faced with an unspeakable horror (the mummies) and betrayed by his old friend who orders his death. Murder at the hands of a loved one, that's hard to top. But Holmes goes one step further with dear old Lawrence Scarman who sweetly spends most of the story pining after his brother. When his animated corpse comes to visit, Lawrence refuses to believe Marcus is dead and is proven horribly wrong when his brother kills him in service to his deity. Thank goodness that is off screen, it's almost obscenely cruel. All these moments, acted with pure conviction, terrify the hell out of me and keep me glued to the screen in trembling terror.
* There are elements of a b movie about Pyramids of Mars (even the title) but to shrug it off as pulpy cheese does it a terrible disservice. I have yet to see a B-movie that comes anywhere close to as compelling as this story and I am a massive fan of the genre. There are very, very few Doctor Who stories that are realised with such style. The story looks gorgeous, far, far better than City of Death and The Two Doctors which are probably its closest companions in the style stakes, simply because this is plugged as a regular Doctor Who story, a solid four parter in the middle of a terrific season. There's no foreign location shoot or special reason for the show to aspire to such visual heights beyond the fact that Paddy Russell is a particularly stylish director. She would easily breach the top ten directors list because she knew how to deliver atmosphere without the hyperactive tricks of Lovett Bickford, the frenzy of Graeme Harper or the military discipline of Douglas Camfield, as brilliant as they all are. The story transcends its B-movie roots thanks to Russell's detail, just take a peek at her location work in the dense, leafy woodland. If you enter these woods today you're not going to be coming out again, that's what she manages to say. The sequences of Ernie Clements the luckless poacher are terrifying, the mummies aren't especially fast but they are relentless. They never stop coming until they get you and shots like Ernie stopping for a breath by a gnarled oak with the two mummies positioned in shot atop the incline, like silent statues, then suddenly lurching to life as he reveals himself are terrifying.  Scarier is the shot of Ernie running at an incredible pace with the mummies closing on him close behind. These nasties will relentlessly pursue you until you're too tired to keep coming. Russell has an incredible eye for visuals, capturing the story's thick atmosphere with intense detail. Watch the slow pan across the woods as Namin, gun trained, pursues the Doctor and a bleeding Warlock hiding beneath an oak tree. Or Sarah training her gun on the explosive, ready to blow the Osirin missile to pieces. Or just the simple trick of the green light that is tearing the Doctor's soul into a million fibres. Russel isn't afraid to give the actors exposure because she has chosen them with an expert eye for casting and she knows precisely what they are capable of. 
* And what a cast list it is. One of the most celebrated complaints about those cheesy seventies horror movies is the miserably bad performances. There's no such problem here. Pyramids of Mars is packed with absorbing performances, strong actors that seem to relish the opportunities Holmes' giving script provides them. Michael Sheard would do exceptional work elsewhere on the show but this is my favourite of his performances, doing a sterling job of making Lawrence as pathetic and tragic as possible (the two things are inextricably linked). He is a sterling British gentleman in every respect, well dressed, decisive ('In view of what you've told me I'm going to call the police!') and helpful. His exploration of the TARDIS is a joy because it reminds us of our first glimpse at the wondrous box; sheer, unadulterated pleasure ('It's preposterous!'). The joy of this character (and Sheard's interpretation) is his quiet attempts to keep up with the complexities ('Fascinating, are you saying the future can be changed?') the story throws up and yet remains firmly loyal to his brother despite all the proof that he is dead ('I can't believe that my brother... he and Dr Warlock were the closest of friends...'). This is why the cliffhanger to episode two is so brilliant, not because of the mummies finally catching up with the Doctor but because Lawrence proves where his loyalties lie by sabotaging the Doctor's plan ('I was thinking of my brother!'). It's impossible not to like him, which makes his death a more powerful moment and as a result makes the tension between the Doctor and Sarah more palpable.
* Bernard Archer is buried under so much make-up, which is one of the few unsubtle elements of the show and yet he still manages to exude a cold menace. It could be because he spends the story calmly walking from scene to scene with his terrifying mummy companions and killing people without any reaction at all, not even a satisfied smile. Or it could be how he only looks mildly inconvenienced when a bullet opens up his back. The fact that he is so quietly haunting throughout leaves his most shocking scene, killing his brother, so disturbing because he finally loses his temper and lashes out, proving his love for Sutekh. He's angry because he feels something. That's horrible.
* There are some Doctor Who villains that you simply cannot forget once you have seen them, for a manifold of reasons. The visual hook (the Jagaroth) or the concept behind them (the Mara) or simply because they exist at such a personal cost to the Doctor (the Master). Sutekh is one of the finest villains the show ever presented, a God of War who wants to grind the whole of reality into dust for no other reason that he finds the idea amusing. There's a terrifying visual hook in his painted mask (it's one of the scariest things I have ever seen on the show) and the performance by Gabriel Woolf is mesmerising. Sutekh lays his cards on the table, he has no redeemable features ('Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness... I find that good') and if released you have no doubt he will live up to his claims. It's a stunning vocal performance that captures all the horror of Holmes' script and magnifies it tenfold, the silky malevolence in his voice that freezes me up. The Doctor and Sutekh are opposites in all ways with the Osiran encapsulating everything the Time Lord is vowed to fight against. Death and destruction taken to such an extreme, it is easy to claim Sutekh as the ultimate Doctor Who villain.
* Make an argument that Dudley Simpson's music got lazier and more predictable over time and I will hand you ten stories throughout his tenure that shows that when it comes to musical scores on Doctor Who that there are none finer. Evil of the Daleks, The Ice Warriors, The Seeds of Death, The Curse of Peladon, The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, The Masque of Mandragora, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Image of the Fendhal, The Ribos Operation, The Androids of Tara. City of Death is justifiably his most recognised score but for my money Pyramids of Mars is the best. It's a tale that gives him a great deal of scope instead of rattling out the same old instrumental melodrama (not that there is anything wrong with that...there are some Doctor Who stories that would have a terribly flat atmosphere without Dudley's music). He manages to capture the atmosphere perfectly and several of his motifs are memorably scary. Ernie Clements' delayed death chase is Simpson at his height; pacey, dramatic and scary. His dark, ethereal score for Sutekh is similarly creepy and unusual. He uses simple instruments (the shaker during Sarah's near encounter with the mummies in the woods) to great effect. And who could ever forget Namin attacking the pipe organ in episode one? 

The Bad: What could possibly go wrong when Pyramids has so much in it's favour. Not a great deal to spoil the overall effect I have to be honest. There are a few production errors that are marginal but inescapable in the sort of turnover the show was facing at the time - some shonky model work, the occasional odd reaction shot that doesn't quite work - but on the whole it is a remarkably stylish piece of work. Episode four is where all my problems wind up. After three episodes of thrills and scares it's an all studio escapade featuring 'childish stratagems' and feels like all the money has run out and the plot is being improvised. The pace is slower and it resorts to cheap tricks like the Doctor's 'death' and the two mummies question trap. And Sutekh's ultimate defeat feels a little easy given the awesome build up he has received. Mind you episode four does have Marcus Scarman's ashen death scene, which is one of the shows most graphic.

Result: Would Pyramids of Mars turn up in my top ten? I'm almost willing to bet that it would feature in a good 80% of fans personal favourites. I think it is dazzlingly good, for 75% of it's running time. Hinchcliffe suffered from the curse of the last episode more than any other producer on the show. Bringing to a conclusion those interminably long Troughton or Pertwee six parters was like taking old yeller out and blowing his brains out, a mercy killing. And so much of the inconsistent eighties was suffering to start with that it is refreshing to reach the final instalment and start again. Much of Hinchliffe's output is polished and substantial and he and Robert Holmes were pretty spectacular at getting a memorable opening night out of the writers. So often really great stories limp to a disappointing conclusion, simply because they are ending. But more than that, stories such as Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion, The Hand of Fear, The Deadly Assassin and Talons of Weng-Chiang have anti climactic resolutions after everything that has come before. Episode four contains much that is good (the Doctor/Sutekh scenes are intense) but it lacks the frisson of the earlier episodes and feels cheaper and less dramatically satisfying. Pyramids of Mars continually surprises for it's first three episodes, delivering one seminal moment after another. Choose any five minutes and you'll stumble across a classic Doctor Who scene. Paddy Russell is one of the series most accomplished directors and this is her most accomplished story. I could wax lyrical about the production values, acting, atmosphere, memorable death scenes and music but I have already done that above. Instead I'll go on record saying that this is the best fourth Doctor and Sarah story, revealing everything that works so well about this pairing. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen always had something special but what they deliver here is magnificent. It's a story I watched a lot when I first got the VHS and DVD and so it doesn't grace the player as often as it should. What a shame, watching this is drinking in classic 70s television. Pyramids of Mars was a last minute replacement but despite some plot holes, it's pretty damn wonderful. It's shit your pants scary too, which few Doctor Who stories are: 9/10

Friday, 2 September 2016

The Time Meddler written by Dennis Spooner and directed by Douglas Camfield

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor battles with one of his own people...a man who is trying to meddle in history...

Hmmm: Anybody who thought that Hartnell might have lost those gnashing teeth in season two might be in for a surprise at the sheer viciousness of his dealings with the Monk. He's appalled at his behaviour, it is the antithesis of his approach to time travelling. There's still a twinkle in Hartnell's eye though, even when he is condemning the Monk for his outrageous behaviour and certainly when he is devising a scheme to nip it in the bud. But not before one the first Doctor's gentlest scenes, his wonderfully warm scene moment with Vicki that takes place after Ian and Barbara have left the TARDIS. If anybody ever thought that Hartnell was always distant and unlikable, take a look this two hander. It's as open and vulnerable and cuddly as the Doctor has ever been. It's probably a good thing that Steven tripped into the TARDIS when he did because things might have gotten a little too Little House on the Prairie. He instantly bumps heads with the young astronaut over his disbelief that the TARDIS is a time machine and spends much of the story chastising him for his lack of faith. Season three would be a turbulent time for the show, a time when the show changed hands twice and the female assistants join the show with nooses around their necks. The relationship between the Doctor and Steven is the one constant and it's a very muscular friendship, brought to life by two actors who clearly respect each other a great deal. And that all starts here. You can see everything that works between them, their attempts to outdo each other, their grudging fondness and how they support each other whilst still having an opinion of their own, often ones that clash. It's one of my favourite pairings in the entire classic run.

Alien Orphan: Excuse me? Can somebody tell me who this resourceful, responsible young lady is? The previous story was The Chase where Vicki got in everybody's way, screamed, grabbed her head like she was scared it was going to fall off and fell for some pretty obvious traps. She was useless. Who ever knew it was Ian and Barbara that were holding her back? Suddenly Vicki is the seasoned traveller and teaching Steven the rules and in the space of about five minutes from one story to the next Vicki seems to have matured about ten years. I much prefer her this way and her chemistry with Steven is instantaneous. I really with the misunderstanding with O'Brien's desire to leave the show had never occurred because this was a very promising line up. The regulars in The Time Meddler raise the story from a good one to an occasionally great one. I love Vicki poking around inside the Monk's TARDIS and her horrified reactions to his morally ambiguous behaviour (mind you she was pushing some pretty serious reforms in The Romans earlier in the season). For the most part she spends the story going from one setting to another looking for the absent Doctor but it's comforting to know in the Hartnell free episode that O'Brien and Purves are more than up to keeping us entertained until he's back from his holiday.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Met Leonardo Da Vinci and discussed the possibility of powered flight.'
'Put 200 pounds in a bank in 1966, nipped forward 200 years and earned a fortune in compound interest.'
'So how exactly does one enter this contraption of yours? Hammer and chisel?'

The Good: Aside from the crisp and quotable dialogue, the thing that stands out the most in The Time Meddler is the direction. Douglas Camfield has been handed one of his earliest Doctor Who assignments and gives this story a very stylish look. The difference between Camfield and the other omnipresent director this season (Richard Martin) is that he keeps things simple, That's not meant as an insult, as a result of Camfield's careful direction most of the story feels as though it was shot on location when it is entirely studio bound. He works like a magician, using clever tricks like adding inserts of the sea crashing and gulls circling in the air to some terrific sets and atmospheric sound effects to complete his illusion. The camera pans through the shadowy monastery sets, which adds some tension and intruige to what is going on in the deserted cloisters. Camfield tries to capture the story in unusual ways, low and high angles, which makes a refreshing change from the stuffy point and shoot approach of some directors. Dennis Spooner has written an interesting spin on the usual educational historical, already trying to stretch the show in interesting ways. He does this increments so as to stagger his surprises, so the story feels at first like it is going to be another story that educates about a well know period of history but slowly evolves into the first pseudo-historical. The gramophone reveal is when the historicals all change for Doctor Who, where science fiction first makes his presence in history. The Monk is looking to pervert history just for fun to change the lives of millions of people just for a bit of a laugh. To make things better for his design. It might presented in an amusing way (especially the moment Vicki realises how he makes all of his money) but it's still an awe-inspiring concept, and pretty terrifying. Lovely moments abound; the aforementioned gramophone, the discovery of the watch, the canon on the beach, the Doctor knocking out the Viking and then being taken hostage. However the highlights are the end of episode three where the series landscape shifts for the first time (although we didn't know at the time it would lead to a whole list of renegades to come) and the devious trap the Doctor springs on the Monk at the climax. You feel sorry for him, despite everything. He's one of those villains that deserves a 'I'll get you next time!' moment. He's simply too good to write out for good.

The Bad: Unusually for a historical for this period the characters who aren't the regulars or the villain of the piece are a pretty faceless bunch. The Saxons aren't imbued with much in the way of character, only Edith and that is mostly because of how the Doctor reacts so magically to her. It's sad that the day Doctor Who decides to show the consequences of rape at the hands of a terrifying force, the chosen victim isn't someone that our sympathies are particularly invested in (imagine if it had been Vicki?). Mind, I question whether a story that is quite this frivolous should be pushing something as mucky as rape in the face of it's viewers anyway. It was bad enough in The Keys of Mariuns where it was treated like something out of a Benny Hill sketch. The fight scenes are where Camfield lets the side down, which is odd given that would become his forte in later seasons of the show. They feel like the belong on the stage, as though a television camera is a little too wide to contain the pantomimic conflict.

Result: Let's face it, season two is the difficult second album. There's a feeling of the show trying to outdo its first year by making everything bigger and better and more experimental. It's a reasonable approach to take and the ratings certainly show that the audiences were responding well but there's no denying that there is more apathy in the second year and a feeling that their ambition outreaches their resources. The two big budget spectaculars, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Web Planet, were handed to a director who would happily blame time and money as a reason for why they mostly look wonky but fails to take into consideration that other directors at the time (Camfield) were delivering much more polished work on less money. Planet of the Giants and The Space Museum are both pretty dull, odd given one features genuinely realistic giant sets and the other has an astonishing first episode. It's not a very inspiring line up and if it wasn't for the three historicals that are peppered throughout the season - The Romans, The Crusade and The Time Meddler it would almost entirely be a write off. I would mention The Rescue but it's a little too inconsequential for it's own good and as for The Chase...well it's marvellous in all the wrong ways. The Time Meddler ends this inconsistent run on a reasonably high note, a fun tale of attempted time perversion that drags a little in places but is extremely well executed on the whole. The joy of this story isn't the plot, although it is quite surprising in places but the sheer delight of having four skillful actors working on a quality dialogue and hogging the screen. William Hartnell was one of the joys of season two, toning down his paternal anger and adopting a more amiable grandfather role and here he gets to veer between mentor to Steven and Vicki and prosecutor of the Monk. Peter Butterworth was quite the steal at the time and there's no denying that he is the charismatic star of the show. Finally Maureen O'Brien and Peter Purves make a terrific duo and it is a crying shame that they denied more stories together, the former taking on a more responsible role now Hill and Russell have left and the latter showing the teeth and grit that would put him in good stead when he is practically driving the show next season. The Monk's scheme is deliciously insane and once we get to the good stuff - the reveal of his TARDIS and the confrontations between the Doctor and his new nemesis - the story really is firing on all cylinders. But that is the main problem with this story, in order to get to the tasty moments there is a lot of padding and hideous Viking/Saxon grunting. It's not the best of Hartnell but it is certainly very admirable and enjoyable. Dennis Spooner knew how to spin a yarn without tortuously complicated plots or unrealistic demands on the budget. The Time Meddler is good old fashioned entertainment and there is nothing wrong with that. It just doesn't aspire to be much more than that, which the top tier Doctor Who's aspire to. Not a classic but in a season of stories reaching for the stars and falling flat on their faces, this is a reliable piece; never terrible and often quite special: 7/10 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Androids of Tara written by David Fisher and directed by Michael Hayes

This story in a nutshell: Romance, swashbuckling, dopplegangers and a castle siege...Doctor Who as a seductive sunny fantasy!

Teeth and Curls: There's an argument to be made that Tom Baker might have been drunk throughout the entirety of the Key to Time season. There's also an argument to be made that it is the zenith of his time in the role, an addictively insane turn as the knockabout Time Lord. Weirdly he's on a mission for the first time and more irreverent than ever, genuinely getting high on his adventures and yet still completely on point when he has jolt you into reality. Some of my favourite Tom Baker scenes take place this season (his moments with Garron in Ribos, his scenes with the Pirate Captain, domestic insanity with Amelia Rumpford) and The Androids of Tara is packed with glorious moments. He's at his loosest and Tom feels as though he has just turned up for a giggle. That works wonderfully well within the confines of a story that is essentially a giggle. 'I'm taking the day off!' he exclaims proudly at the start of the story, never mind that the universe is hanging in the balance. He'd rather fish than construct a whopping great McGuffin that can bring the universe to its knees. 'If you don't stop burning my scarf you're going to have to kill me!' he cries as Farrow chops off another inch of his trusty garment. 'It's funny how they always want you to go alone when you're walking into a trap!' he muses, obviously having learnt a thing or two from his previous adventures but still sticking his neck into the noose to rescue his beautiful damsel. The moment that makes me howl with laughter is when he realises he has been tricked by a dishonourable Grendel and rather than simply exclaim curses he risks being cut apart by laser bolts by opening the door and screaming 'Liar!' defiantly. He's one of a kind. NuWho thrives on those moments where the Doctor turns up at the climax and you want to applaud his timing and heroism...but the classic series wasn't quite as obsessed with that kind of hero worship. However the moment when the Doctor turns up to disrupt the wedding between Romana and the Count ('Hello everyone sorry I'm late, I do so love a good wedding!') I always punch the air. He is every inch the hero, brandishing a sword and indulging in one on one combat with the Count. Watch his glee as his little tin friend floats away on a boat at the end of the story, he watches him spin away into the darkness with a rowdy laugh. It's a gorgeous comment on the fact that this story has been one great belly laugh. Despite these priceless moments there is one that stands out above all the others; after he conspires with Grendel the Doctor storms over to Zadek and bursts 'the Count's just offered me the throne!' Makes me burst with laughter every time. God bless Tom Baker.

Aristocratic Adventurer: I've always been of the school that Mary Tamm is a decent enough actress but wasn't at all challenged by Doctor Who. At times she steps up and commands but often she walks through her stories as though an unpleasant smell is following her. But I have to give Mary Tamm her due, she rocks in this story. The script allows Romana to be ballsy and helpless and for the first episode and not for the first time she takes on the Doctor's role, wandering off, facing the monster, finding the key, seeking out the bad guy... of course she's soon twisting her ankle and laid out on an operating table about to have her neck cut off. You can stray too far from the traditional companion role in Doctor Who but I appreciate the effort, for 20 minutes. Instead of leaving her in a pathetic and useless position, Fisher makes her character pivotal to the story. You might need to rub your eyes by the end of the story, having to identify Romana, Princess Strella and the android copy of Romana. We've seen the doppleganger trope play out countless times in Doctor Who but this is the wittiest example by miles and Tamm makes each one distinguishable and still imbues her Romana with some pluck and resourcefulness. I love the moment where she escapes the castle on the horse she simply doesn't know how to ride. It's the sort of charming moment that Lalla Ward enjoyed a handful of in each story but Tamm was shortchanged of. The first Romana is something of an aristocrat and whilst Tamm in real life couldn't have been further from that it is still a characteristic she plays extremely well, so Strella is a convincing character in her own right. When Tamm is clearly enjoying herself she delivers terrfic goods and by all accounts she thoroughly enjoyed this story. She's as drunk on the atmosphere of the piece as much as the rest of us.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Next time I will not be so lenient!'

The Good: What do The Androids of Tara and The Unicorn and the Wasp have in common? They are both wonderful fun to watch...but they are also delightfully low key stories in seasons that contain big hitters. Season seventeen features an off planet heist tale, an adventure that dares to run with the idea of mining planets, a story that juggles gothic horror and light entertainment, the biggest monster ever seen on the show and a finale that assaults the viewer with everything from a psychological war that is driving a planet to dust to a degrading time loop that could end the universe. In comparison, Tara features the political escapades of a rougish Count and his romantic entanglements with the local gentry. Doctor Who (especially classic Who but it has become increasingly popular in Nu Who too) has always had a penchant for operatic storytelling but Tara literally revels in it's irrelevance. The direction is wonderful, the best this year. Mike Hayes has a keen eye for memorable location filming and shot on one of the hottest summers on record in the UK, it's dazzlingly rich and warm looking story. The story positively glows with colour, the woodland and fields make a superb location for all the running about and fighting and add a nice touch of realism to a story that deals with the extraordinary.The scenes that feature the pavilion are the best and it is rare for Doctor Who to venture out into night time filming.  Leeds Castle lit up from below in all its glory is a sight to behold. The story is filmed with the same lightness of touch as the script so they compliment each other well and the sense of enjoyment from all involved is all up on screen. There are a good few Doctor Who stories (Paradise Towers is an obvious example) where the tone of the script and the tone of the direction fight each other. In Tara they are married in perfect unison. The secondary characters work very well without ever threatening to become the best ensemble of guest characters the show has assembled, Farrah and Zadek aren't half as bland as people would lead you to believe ('funny, some androids say that about people' works well on both of them) and the Archimandrite is played wonderfully by Cyril Shaps, a far cry from Viner from Tomb of the Cybermen or Clegg in Planet of the Spiders. Shaps is always good value. Lamia is the best character though, icy cold and desperate for some love from Grendel. She looks and acts extremely dangerous. An astonishingly straight performance from Lois Baxter, but a chilling one. it stands out because of it. The biggest thumbs up however must go to Doreen James for her outrageously colourful costumes, some of the most striking ever seen in the series. Romana's purple and green blouse! The Archimandrite's huge multi coloured hat! Grendel's suave scarlet tunic. Colour, colour, colour...Tara is like an assault on the senses.

The Bad: It is one of those seventies stories where there is so much location work that the cut back to video in the studios is very jarring. The outside filming looks so expensive that the studio work cannot help but look cheaper by comparison.

Result: Watching this story is like enjoying a glorious afternoon with friends blissed out on wine and basking in golden sunshine. I always finish it with a smile on my face. If you're in Doctor Who for space battles or UNIT adventures then this might not be your glass of vino but if you're willing to go on a fairytale adventure in outer space then this just about the zenith of what Graeme Williams tried to achieve with Doctor Who. It's unique in of itself and deliberately small scale, highlighting atmosphere, gentle plot twists and memorable characters. It uses Romana better than any other story to feature Mary Tamm and features the Doctor at the top of his game; swashbuckler, king-maker and master of witty repartee. The episodes revel in the escape-capture-escape-capture routine, trying to make them more and more elaborate and entertaining and the plot is explained throughout most charismatically by the insanly lovable Grendel. It even has time for a five minute sword-fight and a spot of fishing. We Doctor Who fans are a right fickle bunch, we claim we always want something new interesting and yet when it is delivered we moan and groan about how what we are getting now isn't as good as how things used to be. There are a selective bunch who object to Doctor Who pushing its boundaries too far, who like to claim that a show that features Marco Polo, The Daleks' Masterplan, The Ice Warriors, The Mind Robber, Inferno, Carnival of Monsters, The Sontaran Experiment, The Invisible Enemy, The Pirate Planet, Black Orchid, Enlightenment, Revelation of the Daleks and Ghost Light a formula. I think this is might be why The Androids of Tara has only received a mild reception in the past, recent years have shown some moderate praise in its direction but on the whole fandom seems to want to forget about it. Why? Because it dares to be different. There is no other Doctor Who story like this one and for me that is its ultimate strength, it encapsulates the show during a creative peak, trying out outrageous new ideas to see if they could fit into the shows scope. I wouldn't really try and pin a genre on this story... is it a SF story, a romance, an action piece or a comedy? All of these and more and with more than a twist of The Prisoner of Zenda, it's a touch literary too. It dares to be uncynical and magical and I really love it for that: 9/10

Monday, 29 August 2016

Horror of Fang Rock written by Terrance Dicks and directed by Paddy Russell

This story in a nutshell: 'Gentlemen this lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead...'

Teeth and Curls: There is a positive tension between Tom and Louise in this, he spits out his lines with little time for her replies... it helps with the uneasy feeling the story maintains. Reports of Tom Baker's monstrous behaviour behind the scenes abounds and for once it merely enhances the discomforting mood of the story. I love how the Doctor doesn't give a fig for the posh idiots rescued from the boat but spares a moment for Harker, it's very in-character for him to support the underdog. Plus his almost non-reaction to all the death happening around him helps to remind us just how alien he could be. Maybe Tom was being an arse off screen but take him away and the story would lose a great deal. His little chat with the Rutan on the stairs is a definite highlight, a seemingly absurd situation made utterly convincing by a terrific actor.People often tout Pyramids of Mars as the story where the Doctor appears most alien in Tom's hands but I would definitely opt for this. He's violently moodly, unapproachable, mocks murder, offers no support to anybody around and when push comes to shove and he has to confront the menace he behaves as though the whole thing has been one big game. I'm not sure how much of this Dicks' characterisation and how much is Holmes but between them they conjure up a Doctor who is very hard to like and yet utterly compelling to watch.

Noble Savage: It's another excellent Leela story, a companion who in my opinion is one of the most interesting of the lot. Louise Jameson is a great actress and relishes the stronger moments she is given, Leela's curiosity, violence and protection of the Doctor. I've heard Jameson say that she had to cross out various parts of this script that were written for Sarah Jabe and endless screams but I simply cannot imagine where the might have been. Surely the whole point was to contrast Leela with Adelaide to show how useless companions were in the past compared with how stronger and more able they are currently. If that wasn't deliberate, it is a happy accident. Adelaide's inclusion makes Leela look even more capable than usual. Between the Doctor and Leela you have two very otherwordly regulars. I can't really relate to either of them and it's clear that they can't really relate to each other. The result should be unwatchable but it has the reverse effect. It's discordant, and grippingly so, Leela shows her naivete at the climax when she looks at the exploding Rutan spaceship, almost leaving herself blind.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Are you in charge here?' 'No but I'm full of ideas.'
'You will listen to the Doctor or I will cut out your heart.'
'Leela, I've made a terrible mistake. I thought I'd locked the enemy out. Instead I've locked it in...with us.'

The Good: Nasties in the dark cannot be effective unless you have a focused director at the helm. This story could not have been made later in the Williams era, directors at that point were concentrating of comedy rather than drama but during this early, more experimental season Paddy Russell does a superb job with her resources. For a start she manages to convince that the story is set on a foggy island rather than a BBC studio. No mean feat but with effective sound FX, carefully shot camera work and lots of fog we are transported to an island of terror. No other story has an atmosphere quite like this one, a feeling of oppression and tension creeping from every shadow. Watching this story in the dark is a strikingly vivid experience. The lighthouse sets feel appropriately cramp and uncomfortable and the actors' off screen tension drips into the story with superb results. Russell is a top notch actors director too. Despite Lis Sladen suggesting she over filmed scenes until they lost any spontaneity, the handful of stories that she directed feature some of the finest ever seen in classic Who (As well as Horror, The Massacre and Pyramids of Mars are on that list). Skilled performers do most of the work. The danger cannot feel real unless we fear for the lives of our heroes. Characters such as Vince and Ben appeal to us seconds into the story, they have a nice chemistry and are apparently very happy with their work on the lighthouse. Even Rueben, racist and opinionated though he is, demands our sympathy because we all know somebody as curmudgeonly lovable as this. As they are picked off one by one we feel frightened ourselves, annoyed at the loss of such endearing people. Then the yacht strikes the rocks and further characters are introduced to the isolated setting. This is where things get REALLY interesting because this bunch aren't worthy of our sorrow. Greedy and rude, Adelaide and Henry deserve their fates and yet we still feel for them such is the sense of tension in the lighthouse. Annette Woolette is quite superb in the role of the screaming secretary, she delivers her lines with great aplomb helped along by a script that makes her thoroughly unlikable. It's possible that your ears might have been shredded by her pathetic wailings and you might welcome her death when it comes.

The Bad: The biggest misstep is the realisation of the Rutan but then how many classic Doctor Who stories were tripped up by an effects attempt that was too ambitious for its budget? Yep it's curse of the green blob time, an embarrassing abberation that Paddy Russell struggles on with. It almost diminishes the tension watching it slither slowly up the stairs but the sudden appearance of the mother ship diverts our attention easily enough giving the story the climax it deserves.

The Shallow Bit: Vince isn't much of a looker but he is the most endearing character on this show by a country mile. He's the only one who you really care about and it is devastating when he meets his end.

Result: It's odd, this is story I find hugely enjoyable to watch but whenever I scour my video shelves I rarely feel in the mood to watch it. I tried to pinpoint why today as I popped in the player and watched it. Was it the pathetic FX? Nope, they are serviceable and the show has dished out much worse. Was it the reported bad blood behind the scenes spilling on screen? Nadda, if anything it merely enhances the tension. Perhaps the fact that all the nice people die horribly? Don't be stupid, that's how you tell an effective story! Then what...? It came to me during a scene that is played mostly for laughs. The Doctor rushes into a room full of frightened aristocrats and announces "Gentlemen, this lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead! Any questions?"... the simple fact is this is an extremely uncomfortable story to watch. Everything about it is uncomfortable; the sets, the performances, the script, the direction... they all merge to make one of the most tense and nail biting experiences in the show's run. It's extremely dour for the most part, with relatively little in the way of light entertainment. I think it is the same reason I rarely watch The Caves of Androzani and Genesis of the Daleks (even though I acknowledge that they are blinding stories) and find myself more drawn to the Graeme William era and season 24. I know I will have a good time with those stories. Is this Dicks' best script? Possibly, in collaboration with top script editor Robert Holmes he produces an extremely tight story, perfect for Doctor Who. With a tiny setting, a handful of very memorable characters and a very real menace he has perfected the base under siege formula. It's a sub-genre that Doctor Who has been playing out for over a decade and you would think there is nothing new to learn from it but when you shift settings and characters what appears to be the same type of story on paper becomes very different in reality. Robots of Death and Horror of Fang Rock are base under siege stories that are three stories apart and yet their realisation couldn't be more diverse. The tension refuses to let up right until the last few seconds, early episodes concentrate on the hidden evil and once the cat is out of the bag it becomes a creepy killer among us story before climaxing in a monster fest. The dialogue sparkles, especially for the guest characters and with very few words we know these people very well indeed. Terrance Dicks gets written off as something of a hack adventure writer but there is a great deal of intelligence in this script. Class tension, mysticism, progress debates, survival tactics...the dialogue is crisp and to the point but it has great deal to say about the times too. It's well worth paying attention to the talkier moments. So although I find the story a mite uncomfortable to watch that is only a testament to the talent of everybody involved. Horror of Fang Rock works on so many levels, its a skilfully told character drama, a bite-your-nails good horror flick, a entertaining Doctor Who story and a brilliant start to the new season (and for incoming producer Graham Williams). It's genuinely creepy stuff: 9/10

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Talons of Weng- Chiang written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney

This story in a nutshell: A ghoulish, disfigured monster stalking the sewers of London, preying on young girls to feed upon...

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor has rarely been this commanding, stalking through the story in a Holmesian costume like he owns the genre. Indeed the image of his wading through the sewers in a deerstalker with a rifle in his hand is burned in my memory, the fourth Doctor at his all time best. He gets tonsof fantastic lines, loaded with humour and drama and works when paired up with any of the characters, be it Leela, Jago or Litefoot. The four of them are bloody good friends by the end of the story and an atmosphere of friendship triumphs. What really impressed me (aside from the insultingly rude way he dismissed certain characters, 'It was nothing complimentary!','Well you had a few drinks with Mrs Gusset...' 'Savage, found floating down the Amazon in a hat box!') was the intenseness that Tom Baker brought to the role at the climax when the Doctor is trying convince Greel to halt his experiment. After all his flippancy he turns on a sixpence and drives home the real urgency of the conclusion. I was riveted. It reminded me of the Doctor of the latter Graeme Williams era, who could spend much of the story appearing not to take much of what is going on seriously only to really capture your attention when it counts. The fourth Doctor rarely comes across this seriously and it works really well here, reaching out to the audience with how catastrophic this could turn out.

Noble Savage: 'When we are both in the great here after I shall hunt you down bent face and put you through my agonies a thousand times!' screams Leela, close to death. It's her best story by miles and in Holmes safe hands she thrives in Victorian London, slaughtering Chinese henchmen, hunted by giant rats, trying out sophisticated clothes and going to the theatre. Never before has she seemed so alien and so human, highlighting her against so many characters draws magnificent attention to her lack of social graces and vicious killing streak. And yet in later episodes when Litefoot and Jago are in trouble she is clearly frightened for their safety and tries to convince the Doctor to save them with the beautiful retort' they are our friends, we must help them.' She's his conscience in that moment. The so-called padding from the early episodes, which set up these relationships, are satisfyingly paid off. Louise Jameson was always a little too good for Doctor Who (like Caroline John before her she deserves to spearhead a show rather than providing support for the star) but when she is spoilt with material like this it's difficult to argue against Leela's place in the show. She's works awesomely when paired with the Doctor (it's one of the few occasions where it seems that Baker and Jameson are drunk on each others company) but strikes out on her own often enough to prove that a Leela headed show could be made to work. I'm reluctant at any point of this review to dismiss Robert Holmes' part in making every aspect work and it's worth noting his part in Leela's finest story.

Peerless Professor & Grotesque Theatre Proprietor: A pair of characters so strong that they have generated their own audio spin off series that has been a massive hit. Performed by two charming character actors at the height of their powers, you've got a ready made argument for the gift of sparking characterisation in classic Who. 'I would have propelled him onto the pavement with a punt up the posterior!' scoffs Henry Jago, the most colourful and verbose of Holmes' many creations. Brought to life by the ruddy and charming Christopher Benjamin, Jago lights up the screen. Every line he utters is instantly quotable, a tongue twisting delight that will leave viewers breathless just trying to get their head around it. 'By dash me optics, I should have realised! That brow! Those hands! England's peerless premiere professor of pathology!' and later 'The most formidable combination in the annals of criminology! It is my pleasure and privilege to be working with you on this devilish affair!' Despite his complex linguistics, Jago never seems truly grotesque because he is imbued with natural characteristics that keep him grounded, such as inherent cowardice and unconvincing bravado. He loves getting embroiled in the investigation with the missing girls and beams with delight when Chang is uncovered and he will get the chance to set up a tour of the lair of the phantom, bob a nob. His scenes with Litefoot are such a delight because they are such different people; one calm and collected, the other bluster and bravado and Jago's quiet admission that he is 'not so bally brave when it comes down to it' is very sweet indeed. A lot of people pinpoint the Binro/Unstoffe scenes as the zenith of Holmes' characterisation that prickles at the eyes but I think these scenes qualify too because they are such a contrast the earlier colour. Litefoot shares more scenes with the Doctor but it's his scenes with Leela where he truly shines, respecting her lack of manners rather than condemning her and joining in with her culinary eccentricities to make her feel more at home. If you had any doubt whether he was a gentleman beforehand, this seals the deal. 'They wont catch George Litefoot napping a second time!' he cries. Like Watson to the Doctor's Holmes Litefoot proves an valuable ally for the Doctor and Leela, his connections and home are somewhat abused throughout the story but he takes it all with a stiff upper lip and a confused frown. His boggled reaction to so much of the Doctor's scientific gobble-degookis wonderful, no amount of bashes on the head he receives helps him to comprehend the ridiculous babble the Time Lord spouts.

The Good Stuff:
* Move aside Hartnell historicals... I have never seen a programme, which has been built up so expertly by its dialogue. Robert Holmes is well known for turning in a memorable phrase or two but his script for Talons is a delight, imbued with a colourful sense of fantasy that is lacking from so many of his sterner tales. Whilst the distinctive location work and detailed sets help to create the images of Victorian London it is Holmes' dialogue that transplants you so effortlessly one hundred odd years back in time. His steals scream out at you as you are watching but it doesn't matter one jot, the echoes of Jack the Ripper ('Could be Jolly Jack at work again!'), Pygmalion ('I'm trying to teach you Leela'), Phantom of the Opera (the disfigured and masked Greel), Sherlock Holmes (Professor Litefoot has a housekeeper called Mrs Hudson) help to suck you deeper into the story, a joyous exploitation of one of the most interesting periods of British history. It's not a pastiche because it incorporates these elements so successfully into the story Holmes is telling without being overly intrusive. You can nod your head at these charming influences whilst still being caught up in the unique narrative. His dialogue stretches further than just conjuring up years past however, managing to paint memorable images in the viewers mind without the events even taking place. Chang's dying speech is hauntingly beautiful, the servants from the Palace of Jade coming towards him with baskets of fruit and flowers. The future is bleakly portrayed without ever being seen; The Butcher of Brisbane leaving behind a trail of dead girls, the Peking Homunculus almost causing World War Six, the Doctor standing with the Icelandic Alliance... I love how Holmes adds such depth to his tale with references like these, other writers are content to limit themselves to the story they are telling but Holmes was very fond of branching out like this and adding plenty of background colour.
* Chang and Greel make a real sinister pair; clip clopping through the streets of London in a carriage every night to seek out the Time Cabinet. The closest moment the story comes to reality sees Chang accosting a prostitute to take back to his master to feed on, the Ripper-esque horror of these scenes chills me to the bone. Like most of Holmes' villainous character this pair are both rather pathetic, Chang because he dotes so desperately on Greel under the impression he is a God and Greel because he is slowly dying and refusing to admit his Zygma experiments were little more than a footnote in history. Greel is more frightening because he is clearly desperate to fight back his death and slaughter his way through countless innocent women to achieve that. He's hysterical to the point of utter insanity and will murder anybody who gets in his way. Some of his lines ('I shall not keep you waiting long' he says to Leela who is waiting to have her energy sucked from her body, 'Now for my two partridges!') are sick and sinister. Once his mask is ripped away and we see how disfigured he truly is the tension steps up a mark. Now we know he cannot survive how far will this madman go to achieve his freedom?

* I have always been a huge fan of David Maloney's direction and agree with Philip Hinchcliffe one hundred percent when he says he was the best director on the payroll. Which Doctor Who stories stand out from each era? The Mind Robber? Maloney. Genesis of the Daleks? Maloney again. The Deadly Assassin? Oh yes. His work here is extraordinary, pulling together this mammoth tale with an eye for visuals and a talent for sheer entertainment. Go stick the DVD on and watch any five minutes and you will stumble across a moment that makes you gasp with delight. The body dragged up at the key side. Leela's reaction to Litefoot's pipe. 'Were you trying to get my attention?' The chase through the theatre. Mr Sin at the door and Leela jumping through the window. Chang and the prostitute. Leela screaming as she is gnawed away at by the giant rat. Casey found dead in the Cabinet of Death. 'Take the sting of the scorpion!' The dumb-waiter. Greel's melted face. 'I'll give you three seconds Doctor then Mr Sin will kill the girl!' Leela with the pistol. 'GREEL LISTEN!' The hypocrisy of making tea. The story is just one quality scene after another with everybody in tune with each other. Maloney's stylish direction is the icing on the cake; he chose the right actors, the right locations and the right pace for the story. The results speak for themselves.

The Bad Stuff: The rat is an obvious flaw but it's the only flaw in an otherwise stunning production. It's almost refreshing to be reminded that this is still Doctor Who.

Result: 'Sleep is for tortoises!' A great plump rich Christmas pudding of a story, that has been set aflame and contains a treasury of coinage within. Rarely have we been treated to such a luxurious story, one that takes the time to flesh out of all of its characters, tell an atmospheric and gripping tale and one that frequently dazzles with its colourful dialogue and is wrapped up in a budget-bursting production that manages to make the smallest of scenes totally believable. Add to this mix the Doctor at the height of his powers, accompanied by a companion who enriches the tale, a splendid Dudley Simpson score and a fascinating and expensive look at the Victorian era (which at this point in the series had not been explored to death) all told in six beautiful episodes that ensure nothing is rushed or underdeveloped. Whilst Robots of Death, Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin are also excellent examples of how much talent was lavished on the show during the Hinchcliffe years I feel Talons is his ultimate gift to the series, the story is attention-grabbing but it's married to a dazzling production that leaves these others in its shadow. In our reality-TV driven society of razor sharp pace and instant gratification we don't see television of Talons' standard anymore and that is such a shame. Television that is content to be beautiful and characterful, to where its influences on its sleeve and dazzle with them, television that paces itself to tell a fulsome story that leaves you sated with gourmet standard quality by its climax. Halfway through the series' first run, Doctor Who climaxed its season fourteen with the best story of its entire run. Flawlessly written, wonderfully acted and featuring some of the best direction of the time, Like reaching a fantastic orgasm for six long episodes without all the embarrassment that comes afterwards. Glorious: 10/10

Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Face of Evil written by Chris Boucher and directed by Pennant Roberts

There is a very interesting premise at the core of The Face of Evil, more interesting than a computer with a split personality that split up a colony ship into two separate tribes. The Doctor has often been portrayed as a flawed hero but we never really get to see evidence of this so to hear him admit that on his last visit he tried to help and misjudged his tinkering (and his ego) is quite a shock. Much like The Ark it is fascinating to set the story long after the Doctor's first visit and to explore the consequences. Whilst hardly apologetic the Doctor is clearly horrified to see the far-reaching results of his handiwork, you realise just how much of an impact, how much change he has caused when he doesn't even recognise the planet or the people until the end of the second episode! I love this idea of the Doctor failing, its one of the reason I will take him over James Bond (actually in latter years Bond has been portrayed as a flawed hero so that is a pretty moot argument of mine) any day because the Doctor can lose and lose spectacularly. A lot of people die in this story and none of it would have happened had the Doctor never visited. He's the catalyst for everything that takes place.

The Face of Evil is an often-ignored story from the treasured season fourteen and looking at it objectively it is easy to see why. It isn't one of the big hitting spectaculars like Talons of Weng-Chiang or The Deadly Assassin, it doesn't have the rich visual splendour of The Robots of Death of Masque of Mandragora. Even The Hand of Fear has Lis Sladen's creepy turn as the possessed Sarah and her moving departure at the end of the story. In comparison The Face of Evil is a studio bound tale set on a faceless alien world full of visual science fiction clichés such as tribesmen and insane computers. But to write it off as such is to do the story a great disservice.

It is a very clever piece from writer Chris Boucher that takes big ideas like God-worship and split personality and applies them to a tale that is low on action but scores well intellectually. Hinchcliffe is still taking risks three stories from his departure, most producers would keep it safe and just use writers they can rely on but this young, dynamic producer is still drawing fresh talent to the show. A bold but successful step, the script is lively and packed with amusing dialogue and clever quips (but then with Robert Holmes lurking in the background that is practically a given). It's beautifully structured too, the first two episodes introduce the main concepts; the mystery of the Doctor's influence on the planet, the scientific equipment scattered about a primitive colony. After exploring the Sevateem camp the story switches location for the last two episodes into the Tesh ship and introduces the heart of the problem in the memorable third cliffhanger. It holds back its answers for as long as possible but it is more satisfying as such because we have seen so much evidence to give the revelations some weight. Because it is a more considerate story than usual it demands more time to deal with its climax, which unusually takes place halfway through the last episode with plenty of time to deal with explanations and the future of the colonists. It's not a perfect story but you cannot fault the effort that has gone into the writing, which is unusually dense for this series.

How bizarre is it to see a companionless Doctor. I am glad they quickly introduced Leela because I don't think I could have managed a whole story with the Doctor addressing the camera as he does at the beginning of this story. Although it is rather fun imagining that you are the companion, that he is addressing you personally. If the production team had been even braver they would have roughened Leela up even more, had her dirty and dishevelled, like she really lived in the wild. As it is the Dads need some incentive to tune in so Louise Jameson debuts in clean skins looking as though she has just taken a bath. A sanitised savage she may be, but she s still stunningly beautiful and of course a superb actress to boot. I can understand the decision to keep her squeaky clean but at least her behaviour and instincts are appropriately feral and that is all down to Jameson's acting choices.

There is immediate potential with Leela that isn't apparent with so many companions and you can see instantly what the producer was trying to achieve. Much like Jamie and Victoria there is a lot of scope for having ignorant companions (and I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion, Jamie and Victoria were companions from the past and Leela is a savage warrior) who require a lot of explanations for the scientific side of things. It allows the writer to feed information to the viewer without the companion looking stupid. But it's more than that, I firmly believe the key to good comedy/drama is healthy culture clashing and to pair up an eccentric scientist with a homicidal savage and you have character gold. I think the interest in Leela as character waned when Robert Holmes gave up the script editing reins but there were plenty of wonderful moments scattered about her first five stories to justify the experiment. As is often the case, the companion simply cannot shake out of the clichés of the role but Leela managed it more often than a great many. Indeed Louise Jameson's compelling performance as the naive savage is one of the highpoints of this story, you can see already the Eliza Doolittle/Proffesor Higgins relationship flowering in precisely the way Philip Hinchcliffe wanted. And they stick close throughout the story, learning the facts of the situation together.  and how Leela learns that her entire belief system is false is sensitively but firmly handled by the Doctor who refuses to molly-coddle her. By the end of the story Leela is talking about concepts she didn't even understand at the beginning and even looking at her own people exactly the same way we saw her at the beginning, thus begins her education. It's a smart relationship, one of a handful that stood out in the seventies.

Doctor Who and religion are sticky subjects, sometimes a story tackles the subject head on such as in The Massace but more often they are background elements (Underworld has a twisted religious sect at it's heart but we never get involved enough in it's workings to understand much about it). The Face of Evil deals with a heavy religious theme and has the balls to be less than positive about it. It is almost a deconstruction of the God myth, Xoanon is simply a diseased computer with delusions of grandeur but the myth behind this 'God' is an extremely powerful and destructive force. It shows how propaganda can lead to a belief system of its own, through Neeva (tricked by Xoanon), the Sevateem are manipulated into fighting and killing on behalf of their God. And Leela who actively speaks out against Xoanon is threatened with execution and banished from the settlement. It exposes some of the dangers that come with raw religious beliefs and shows you how far people are willing to go in the name of their icon. Even more interestingly the story opens out into religious war, with the two fractured halves of Xoanon's personality externalised in the Sevateem and the Tesh. We see two homicidal factions that dismiss the other's beliefs and wish to see their false religion stamped out. All very interesting. I suppose the question is how far into exploring religion can a four part SF serial from the 70's go? Much of what I have discussed here is background information and there to be picked up by those who choose but they will be others who should dismiss my claims and read something completely different into the story, or even that it has no commentary at all and is only a rather witty (if drab) adventure tale. I have no opinion on God one way or the other but I find it fascinating that a story should throw religion in such an unforgiving light. Certainly of you look at this story with religion in mind it has some very damning comments to make. What is bloody brilliant is the idea (and realisation) of a savage community with technological equipment scattered around their settlement. The way in which the Sevateem has compartmentalised these objects into their society is very creative. Neeva's glove headgear is great fun and the close up on the survey ship alloy gong a phenomenal moment, driving home the idea of how this civilisation came to be.

One huge fault with the story and one that the Hinchcliffe era is so keen to avoid usually is the design. It is a very dour looking story which starts with the sets and then extends to the rest of the production. The bare and unconvincing jungle, the sterile corridors of the survey ship, simple hut like dwellings. The costumes: savages in simple leathers (realistic but hardly eye catching), the Tesh in bizarrely camp makeup and green quilted uniforms. The direction is lacking too, occasionally there is a moment of genius (like the test of the Horda) but sometimes Pennant Roberts sticks to dull static shots for his fight sequences and let's some shoddy production errors pass by his eye. Little of this story pleases the eye and I find myself bored and wanting some vibrancy. No trouble of that in the next two stories. Another massive problem is the third episode; this is another season fourteen story that suffers from the curse of the third episode. This instalment seems to comprise of some embarrassingly inefficient laser fights, both in the jungle and in the Tesh ship and a bunch of manual-inspired Tesh being civilised and camp with each other. It is not until the unsettling cliffhanger the things pick up where we are finally privy to some explanations. Perhaps a more dynamic director could have livened up this change of location but it's a pretty slovenly 25 minutes as it stands.

One thing the story gets very right is the performances. The Sevateem are played with relish by a bunch of experienced British character actors and as such come across as a believable and rowdy group. Brendan Price's Tomas is the token nice guy but there is nothing queasy about his sensitive performance. David Garfield plays Neeva with the right amount of hypnotic naiveté; I love it when he interrogates the Doctor by waving scientific equipment in his face and screaming religious propaganda (although I dread to imagine how somebody would judge this had they never seen Doctor Who before and walked in on that scene). But best of the bunch is Leslie Schofield's enigmatic performance you can see a character who is watching every plot twist and seeing how they can twist it to their advantage.

It is a story that takes the psychological and religious angle over straightforward action adventure but still manages to tell a fairly entertaining story. It is far from perfect (it's not exactly the first story you would show a non fan, or even the tenth) but there is an intelligence to the story that is hard to ignore. Personally I find it a little too dry in places, the direction freezing up too often but I would still bill it as a strong story in its own right and one that manages to push the boundaries far better than the acknowledged and overrated stories that make similar claims, such as Kinda.

Just think the entire universe could be the handiwork of a clapped out computer with split personality syndrome: 7/10