Monday, 1 June 2015

Best of Three

I wasn’t going to write a concluding post for my Pertwee watch-a-thon. I thought, if there’s anything I could ever find to say on this era, I must have said it somewhere in the last year or so that I’ve been a-watchin’ and a-bloggin’ about it. But then I thought of this title for this post and I thought, well, a top ten list wouldn’t go amiss, would it?

Also, a nagging part of me remembered writing a farewell to Troughton and apprehensive look ahead. I remembered saying, ‘I’ve never been a very great fan of the Third Doctor,’ that everything about the Third Doctor’s era is ‘basically antithetical’ to my beloved 1960s era. Is he, I asked, truly Doctorish? Was this, I wondered, going to be any fun at all?

I must admit, the major reason I didn’t feel like writing this blog post after I finished Planet of Spiders is that I was weary. I couldn’t face staggering on to Robot et al. Part of me wanted to list all my Who ephemera on eBay and be shot of it. But why?

While Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is ‘Doctorish’, it’s on a very odd point of the spectrum. Sometimes, when he’s fierily, fiercely yet foppishly intelligent, he reminds me more of his First incarnation than any other Doctors do. Yet in other ways he’s unrecognisable. He handles a ray gun, throws people over his shoulder as soon as look at them, and winds up owning a silver version of the Batmobile.  

Most importantly, he casts aside his mystery and his vagabond ways, and with them loses a certain magic. And magic, I think, is a quite specific turn. This Doctor is an avowed scientist, but this sometimes detracts from his Wizardly quality - in an Arthur C. Clarke, 'any sufficiently advanced technology', sort of way. Instead of an uncanny or tricksterish aura, he’s plain-speaking and direct – not one to fool his enemies, or hide behind a clown’s fa├žade. He speaks without irony, in earnest, sometimes with heavy overtones of self-importance.

Sometimes this works brilliantly. In particular, Pertwee makes his enemies and even his alien allies more credible through his serious, sober gaze. Peladon (first time around) is as serious as a Hartnell historical (and therefore hysterically funny at times). This series can go totally wild when it wants to, knowing that its lead actor will always anchor the whole show. But when a story loses power, Pertwee’s straight and faithful line readings do nothing to lift it.

And overall, it’s missing something. We are rarely surprised by Pertwee. Mother Hens don’t tend to surprise us. One of the peculiarities of this era is that as soon as his dematerialisation circuit turns up, there is no dematerialisation – but how could this Doctor turn his back on his family? It’s hard even to picture it happening, the lever on the console falling, the Police Box doors swinging shut, the Brigadier raising his eyebrows in disapproval.

Yet this is the great strength of the series. The Doctor and his work-mates’ relationships are cartoonish, but they work in the context of the show. And while it would be a lie to say they evolve, they are drawn in ever bolder dashes of the pen, ever brighter splashes of colour. Not only that, they all get their big moment. Benton outsmarts the Master (briefly). Jo walks out on the Doctor and sets us all blubbing. Mike Yates goes undercover, then bad, then Buddhist. The audience’s investment in these characters is rewarded in ways that haven’t happened in Doctor Who before.

 
In my goodbye to the sixties, I looked back to the early years, my favourite era, ‘when we really care about the companions, when the actors are always slightly revelling in being the most mundane sci-fi heroes ever’ as well as ‘a time of rampant invention.’ In retrospect, the early seventies aren’t so different. Our heroes are perhaps less earthly than Barbara Wright, but they’re also distinctly unheroic. They say all the things that Star Trek and Buck Rodgers characters wouldn’t. They didn’t pass their O Levels. They watch the Rugby highlights while they’re on duty. They make jokes about the Clangers. At the end of the day, they go to the pub.

 

The Doctor himself, no longer a Who, is more of a ‘real’ character than he’s ever been before. He’s the man with two hearts, two worlds, forever torn between the local and the extra-terrestrial. This is a man who represents, not the longing to travel and explore, but simply the freedom of the mind. When the mind is free all sorts of new dangers can arise – but it’s still better than closing yourself off. This idea of transcendentalism – of being bigger on the inside – is spiritual and political at the same time. This is a series made by people who believe science and imagination can liberate, not just the individual but the world.

 

Perversely, this is when the TARDIS really comes to life. After years of being taken for granted as the vehicle to deliver us to the party and take us away at the end, it’s given its due value as a symbol of escape and liberation. There’s something really exciting in The Time Monster when the Doctor and Jo dash inside and vanish, off to Atlantis (you couldn’t get a more fabulous, impossible destination). This is where it truly becomes a conceptual space (two Tardises capable of landing inside one another), when it is first described as ‘alive’. At times like this, the writers actually seem drunk on the possibilities of these ideas of alien worlds and time travel.

 

At other times during The Time Monster, they just seem drunk. (Ah, you knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

 

This is the best of Doctor Number Three, and this is the reason: the producers really care about it. Some writers, actors, designers, it’s just a job, but the production team are invested in it, enthused by it. They make the show into a series, as far as they can. Eventually it runs its course. It’s time to shift away from a ‘setting’ and explore a multiplicity of worlds, to make the Doctor a restless wanderer once more, to bring a tight focus onto just two (or three) lead actors. Time to head into the unknown and unexpected once more.

 

Yesterday I went online and ordered a DVD of Robot, Tom Baker’s first story. I’m ready for the new.

 

 
 
A quick thank you to two blogs that have helped me illustrate this blog over the past year or so: the gorgeous, inexhaustible Third Doctor Costume blog, which includes an enormous amount of chocolate-wrapper/TV Action ephemera (and the like) - and Not Tonight Dalek, whose scans and images have been invaluable. Both blogs are Giant K-1 Robots to my equivalent Quark-like specimen.
 
 

So, My Top Ten Third Doctor Stories

 

1          Spearhead from Space

2          Doctor Who and the Silurians

3          Inferno

4          The Claws of Axos

5          The Daemons

6          The Curse of Peladon

7          The Time Monster

8          Carnival of Monsters

9          Invasion of the Dinosaurs

10        Planet of the Spiders

Monday, 25 May 2015

Planet of the Spiders

'Came to the end of Jon Pertwee last night,' I told my boyfriend over breakfast.

'Emotional?' he asked, obviously fascinated.

To my surprise, and his disappointment, answering this simple question required the summarising of the whole six-episode story, skipping the car chase but going back to talk about The Green Death and also some of Doctor Who's previous seasons. It turned out it wasn't a straightforward answer, however easy it is to say, 'Yes, it's very sad when he dies at the end.'

That's because a huge effort is made in this story to build upon the preceding stories, in a way we hadn't seen since the first years of William Hartnell. It's not a very solid construction – more like Wile E. Coyote laying railway track as he rides off the cliff – but it does make a sort of sense, born of Barry Letts' deep Buddhist conviction, which suffuses this era. In this story we see quite explicitly that it's time for the Doctor to change: not because of his health or his luck, but his absolute self. What might be called his soul.

It's something that I've been feeling for several stories now, at least partly because the production team did such a good job in their first couple of seasons, when the Doctor was still chafing at the bonds of his exile and never stopped going on about the injustice of his incarceration on Earth. Every other story, when he sees his chance, he's ready to run out on Earth and return to his life as a cosmic hobo, albeit one dressed by Pierre Cardin.

And then he gets his freedom back and – stays on Earth! Still fossicking around the same old laboratory, now fussing with his car instead of his time machine. Has he opted to settle down with Lethbridge-Stewart for the foreseeable? Has he lost even the curiosity to foresee the future?

His exile by the Time Lords seems to have had a conditioning effect. He's become as non-interventionist and incurious as they. Once upon a time he was happier to call himself a citizen of the universe ('And a gentleman, to boot!') but now he identifies himself more strongly than ever with their Lordliness and ideology. In The Time Warrior, he disses them gently as 'galactic ticket inspectors' but essentially he's doing their job: clamping Linx's space-ship and, in the next story, issuing the British government's time travellers with an on-the-spot penalty (getting eaten by T-Rex).

Of course, he's in denial about all this. He tries persuading Jo to join him on the open road, but she's having none of it. She wants a mission and a relationship and every other linear thing the trans-temporal life is an escape from. He takes Sarah-Jane away for a weekend on Florana, a mini-break to Peladon, but he always comes home to his claret and sandwiches, and presumably a gentleman's hairdressers with whom he has regular, eccentric conversations. Spiders shows him on a night out at the Tarminster Civic Centre. Having finished his space car, he's taken up a new project to distract himself with.

To distract himself from that feeling of terror which we see – in a comedy sequence, of all things – on his visit to Metebelis Three in The Green Death. A fear of the unknown that he represses, because he knows that's not who he is. A fear which he ultimately, alone as he was that morning in Oxley Woods, goes to face.

I think it's true to say that this is a story about the end of the Doctor's life, while The War Games (which I watched about a year ago) is a serial. Just as Doctor in 1969 and earlier is a show, every instalment a new splash of spectacle, and Jon Pertwee's era is a series. A tremendous amount of care and attention has gone into devising this show, and oddly enough it necessitates this rather melancholy last season.

Death to the Daleks, and the end of the Exxilons too; the sourness of the Golden Age and the defection of Mike Yates and Jo Grant's wedding gift sent back in a Jiffy bag. Even Aggedor gets shot in the head. The Master seems to have vanished without a trace. The Buddhist philosophy asks its disciples to consider impermanence, and so does the last series of Jon Pertwee.

'And,' I told my boyfriend, 'the whole last story is about how the "old man must die, and the new man discovers to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed." And when they meet the Abbot of the meditation centre, he turns out to be the Doctor's old teacher from when he was a boy...'

'This is beginning to sound like a dream you had,' Jon replied, in bafflement rather than derision.

And it's absolutely true. All the mystery and wonder of Planet of Spiders comes from its complete illogicality. Coincidence piles on coincidence, without even the daring to call it 'serendipity'. The story begins with answers that are never answered: what's Lupton doing with his followers down in that cellar, if he doesn't know about contacting the Spiders, and why have the Spiders picked him as their agent anyway?

It ends with questions, too: why did the Abbot set up that meditation centre, and where does he go at the end of the story? What exactly is the Doctor's great fear, and what would happen if 'facing it' also entailed the rise of the Great One to dominate the universe with her ungodly will? How exactly do you teleport from Earth to Metebelis Three just by stepping on a bit of carpet? Why not do it all the time, if you can?

To a great extent, Doctor Who can never quite escape the fact that it's a 'show'. Lurid, sensational, ephemeral, daft. A showman and his assistant playing their part against a shimmering screen, with a puppet dancing on the table. How's it done? What's that? What will happen next?

But it also acts a bit like a mandala: a picture of the universe, in microcosm. (Funny that the Third Doctor's era began with a modern counterpart to this image, the Earth photographed from space.) This is one of the Doctor's lives, in microcosm, from Cyril Shaps to Kevin Lindsay, Drashigs to the Doctor's tutor. The transcendentalist figure of the Doctor makes as good a figure for contemplation as any, a place from which to consider the self and try to get beyond it.


And at the end of the story, we roll up the magic carpet or rub out the mandala drawn in the sand, and consider everything afresh...



Monday, 18 May 2015

The Monster of Peladon

After the savourless stodge of Death to the Daleks, we come to a dish carefully prepared. A proper story, with mystery and political allegory: a secret traitor, an icy villain and – what more could you ask for – a giant green phallic monster with six arms who worries that humans are alarmed by it.

It's a sequel, the one instance of this Doctor returning to a previous adventure, and Sarah Jane's sharp tongue prevents it all getting too sentimental. There are brave queens deceiving their viziers, political skulduggery, ghosts and brave dashes and mad miners. When a beautiful young woman is dragged through secret passages beneath an ancient citadel, a mad-eyed man on her arm, a slavering beast on her trail, it makes you wonder how Philip Hinchcliffe could ever be thought the last word in gothic Doctor Who.

So why is it all so flipping dreary?

Why do we long for the episodes to spool by faster? Why do we yawn, tut, scratch ourselves and think of other things? Why does this whole story feel so unnecessary?

It must at least be the inevitable comparison with the fabulous Curse of Peladon. Nothing stands up to four episodes of plotting, red (or rather emerald green) herrings, and the gorgeous David Troughton being utterly serious in a jumbo purple velvet collar and silk hotpants, whilst talking to a man of a certain age with a pink streak in his hair. While the torches flicker...

It was like nothing we had ever seen on Doctor Who before, and recycling the sets only reinforces that we haven't returned to the real Peladon, not to that assemblage of alien beings, that sense of something daring and weird and authentically panto. If only Brian Hayles had taken a gamble and tried the Peladon approach with a whole new planet. To be honest, Terry Nation tried that last story with an arid alternative to swampy Spiridon and it was a total disaster – but at least he tried (and to be honest, he didn't try very hard).


Then there's the unavoidably crude politics. It's about the miners strike – so here are some miners, on strike. Do you see? Only sadly, caricaturing them as badger-like superstitious hotheads, the script manages to treat them with such insensitivity they might as well give them all Welsh accents, hire Talfryn Thomas and be done with it. Then we have Sarah Jane offering the Queen of the planet a crash course in women's lib; thank goodness for Lis Sladen's delivery or we'd all be cringing into our purple velvet sleeves.

I mean: yes, fill a story with cartoons, but have fun with it. Don't pretend you're making any kind of political analogy. Go big. Go wild. Go colourful.

I have to make an exception here for Alan Bennion, back for the third time here as an Ice Lord from Mars. He knows what he's about, and if it wasn't beneath me to make some cheap puns, I'd call him truly chilling. He's arranging the Doctor's execution and threatening the murder of hostages, and that's before the mask slips and he's revealed as a bad guy.

The Third Doctor has really lacked for enemies of his calibre. What a shame Azaxyr, leader of a Martian splinter group, isn't more the focus of this story.

Almost done now. The days of this incarnation are numbered. At one point, when the Doctor and Sarah Jane think they're slipping away unnoticed, the canny Queen Thalira cries out – with some emotion – 'Goodbye, Doctor!' And yes, you think, it's almost that time.

In one scene, with vague presentiments of Caves of Androzani, the Doctor actually seems to go past the point of mortal strength and collapses lifeless in his chair for an hour. Sarah Jane is quite rightly in bits (albeit for the second time, for the same reason, in one story) and when she says, 'I can't believe he's dead. He was the most alive man I ever knew...' Well, you feel that emotion – and you can almost kid yourself that this was his last hurrah, among the badger-men, penis people and screaming queens of Peladon.


Goodness, though, that would have been bloody weird.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Death to the Daleks

Oh, for the love of Gond.

This was the last Dalek story I had never seen, and I'd actually been quite excited about it, though I never used to give two stuffs about the Daleks. As a kid I saw them as the monsters who had weathered the least well, the ones that creaked and doddered while others skulked. Watching 60's Doctor Who in sequence made me realise how special the Daleks actually are. That they are the only point of continuity for the Doctor for several years, and the ones who symbolically separate him from Susan, Ian and Barbara, and Bret Vyon, Sarah Kingdom and Katarina too.

Oh, and Brian Cant!

They rival us as the Doctor's biggest fans, watching him on space telly in The Chase – in fact every Dalek POV is like a little fan vid – and he in turn is the only one who really appreciates how human these tin pots can be. Where other Hartnell aliens are misunderstood or misled, and Troughton monsters are mindless drones or insatiable animals, the Daleks are a bit like Hartnell or Troughton themselves if they were half-robot and faintly insecure.

And for most of the 1960s they also had a whiff of movie magic about them. They were the only truly special effect in the show, barring the Tardis console itself (sound effects included) - when either of those becomes the focus for the story, Doctor Who suddenly feels like  a weird space: like Radio Caroline  breaking in upon the Light Programme.

Well, if you didn't already know, Death to the Daleks doesn't really work this way.

I don't think there's anything really wrong with it being primarily a visual story. It can actually make it more potent than Pertwee's talkier tales. The first episode, the seeming death of the Tardis and the terrors of the Exxilon mists are gripping and disturbing, and a perfect counterpoint to a Doctor who is always in control, particularly when Sarah has just begun to trust him.

Writing an entire story around some mining (better to call it panhandling) on a desert world, and a deserted, fully automated city, really is a gamble with the money stacked against you, though. This is a dismal story in every sense: bleak and monotonous.

It's worth picturing it designed by someone who liked colour. Someone who could make it as lurid as Planet of the Daleks or, going back a bit, Claws of Axos. The interviews with designers on both Time Warrior and Dinosaur discs include the wistful memory, 'I was so excited to be assigned Doctor Who and so disappointed it wasn't set in space.' This one seems to feel the reverse, if his naff interiors are anything to go by.

You can't blame the director. He's doing everything he can. Some shots are quite thrilling – but a suite of studio footage on the DVD shows what an atmosphere of inertia the Daleks could conjure (never mind Terry Nation's lacklustre script). They lumber forward, they look the wrong way, their guns get jammed. You sense how difficult it was to get anything to ignite on set. You have to feel for Pertwee himself. It's like sparring with a filing cabinet.

(Although, memorably, a Dalek does burst into flames – when you hit it with a stick. Worth knowing. And in the best outtake I've seen in many a year, they whisper! The Daleks confer by squawking at each other sotto voce for the first, last and never time only: the scene was reshot with the usual shouting.)

I fell asleep around the end of episode three, and on rewinding to see what I'd missed, found that I hadn't. I can't help but be reminded of Patrick Troughton's final season. Not a bad season, all told, but a confused and aimless one. Say what you like about the Doctor's lack of mystery after his trial, and the cosy UNIT family (including Master) but at least it gave the show and its heroes a solid identity. Now these narratives are ended, those gains are slipping away. Death to the Daleks is a dangerous example of people treating Doctor Who as a given, without knowing the characters and without having the enthusiasm to do something new with them.


It's about time for a new broom.


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Invasion of the Dinosaurs

… And nobody really knows what the dinosaurs actually looked like, do they?

I said in my Green Death review that we were saying goodbye to the UNIT era. I thought then that it was appropriate it ended with clinking glasses and the Doctor disappearing off on his own in Bessie, his most faithful companion in all his time on Earth. Well, I just didn't know what I was talking about, evidently.

How's about Mike Yates pulling a fun on the Brigadier, eh?

And while we're about it, how about the Brigadier risking mutiny by rescuing the Doctor from a senior officer?

What, indeed, about a story where all the Green Utopianism that's typified the Dicks/Letts era becomes a government conspiracy to commit global genocide?


Everything's cracking up. The halcyon days are gone. Even Bessie's been put in the garage, passed over for something spangly and futuristic. (Why not just stick some fold-out wings on his jaunty Edwardian roadster? Is he scared he'll have Dick Van Dyke on his doorstep, threatening litigation?)

The crucial thing is, for quite a while we don't know that Operation Golden Age are mass murderers in waiting. In fact, even at the end their leaders seem to see this as a point of philosophical debate. Of course, the scheme itself is so loopy it strains credulity - but if it seemed more credible, might it also seem more reasonable?

For at least half the story, there's the chance the Doctor is on the wrong side - and perhaps there is an ambiguity even at the end. The fact that the story ends with two men, however dangerously minded, getting beamed back to the Jurassic era, and apparently to the Doctor's satisfaction, only underlines this.

In fact, Mike's continued harping on to his superiors about the Doctor - not fingering him as a threat so much a potential ally - implies the Time Lord has been a dangerous inspiration to our sad captain. The Doctor spent all that time trying unsuccessfully to encourage a cosmic outlook in his young companion, but perhaps it rubbed off on the wrong person.

I don't know the circumstances that led to Mac Hulke leaving the series' writing roster (a lust for conference centres seems improbably involved) but it almost feels here that he's exposing, fatally, the ideological problems of UNIT and the Doctor. The question of what the Brigadier might try to achieve if his mandate was active rather than responsive (and just what are all those scientists developing at the research centre in The Time Warrior?) haunts this surprisingly grim tale.

A part of me really wants the Pertwee era to end with the Brigadier's complete disillusionment with the British establishment and his resignation from UNIT, perhaps to form his own splinter group. In Wales. With Nancy and her nut roast. Watching Troughton and Pertwee in sequence made me particularly curious about the Brigadier as a character, from the way he accepts the Doctor at face value to his conversation with the sceptical Liz Shaw, plus everything we read between the lines.

This is quite a good story for the Brigadier, insofar as it doesn't reduce him to a Nigel Bruce Dr Watson, but any real insights into his mentality are forever deferred. The big omission is  Lethbridge-Stewart's closing chat with Yates. But then the show has set up and then skipped these sorts of conversations, ever since The Silurians.

The Doctor arrives a week later than he intends to, and we all come close to being rolled back and nixed. (We would be in even more trouble if Sarah Jane a Smith hadn't stowed away the week before.) What would UNIT do if the Doctor finally made up his mind and returned once more to wandering time and space. And what exactly do they do with Professor Whitaker's time machine after he's gone? Hello, UNIT dating controversy.

Our hero is ready to go. He finishes the story with an almost exact re-tread of his invitation to Jo to Metebelis III. Only this time, instead of being oblivious, his friend can't stop herself listening to him. (She presumably hasn't heard how little the last paradise planet turned out to resemble the brochure.) And the series has shifted already, so that when they come back to the modern day, it feels alien and unfamiliar. As if we're seeing through Sarah's eyes now that she's stepped outside the everyday.

Can you believe this is the first time we've seen the Third Doctor in modern London? The first and only time, I believe. No stalking down Whitehall with Liz Shaw, or sipping espressos in Soho with Jo Grant. It makes him seem even more out of time, waiting at a bus stop with his frills out and his magnifying glass swinging on its pendant, yet somehow even more of that era - a glam Doctor, a combination of John Steed, Gambit and Purdey, a man who could be scientific adviser of UNIT forever if he didn't feel the need to tempt Sarah Jane to sample the higher dimensions.

There's a fair bit of padding in the last couple of episodes, including a superfluous chase in the woods. But I don't think I'll ever feel too harshly toward a story with lots of location filming. There are some gorgeous shots of the Doctor framed by woodland foliage that take us right back to Spearhead from Space. This is a Doctor who has come to feel and look strangely at home on Earth.

Not for long. The Police Box is beckoning. It's time for Sarah to meet the Daleks...
 
 
 
 
 

 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Time Warrior


Nowadays, by which I mean 1974, it strikes me as slightly odd that I used to remark so much on the bad-tempered old Third Doctor. I remember a lot of people in Jon Pertwee’s second season getting the sharp edge of his tongue, and then some hard words for Day of the Daleks’ Controller, as well as bureaucrats fighting The Sea Devils and experimenting on The Mutants. But as if mellowed by the charm of Jo Grant, or perhaps the impervious Master (no use shouting at him), the Doctor’s been getting increasingly sweet-natured and tolerant.

I suppose it depends on who’s rubbing the nape of his velvet jacket the wrong way; any civil servant or wunderkind scientist with a jacked-up ego was ever liable to have the air taken out of their tyres. Perhaps it was the frustration of memory loss, or the thought that he'd never see Jamie McCrimmon's hairy knees again. In this story you might expect him to be more irritable once more, given the big events of The Green Death: strange to find him on Earth at all, really.

And to be so tolerant of the Brigadier, going through one of his bumptious phases, and Professor Rubeish’s  fiddle-faddling, not to mention an investigative reporter smuggling herself into a 'top secret' government think tank as if it was a tupperware party. She's only there because scientists working on government related research are mysteriously going missing! But then that's suddenly the key to Pertwee's Doctor: suave and cool and jokey when everyone else is getting aerated.

That's the delight of the Doctor's scenes with our two testosterone-tastic warriors, Lynx and Irongron, and particularly the latter, who bellows and stomps about and swings his sword in all directions. When the Doctor's disguised as a robot and Irongron suggests chopping its head off, the Doctor suddenly becomes the unflappable upper class gent: 'Isn't that a bit unsporting, old man? I mean, sitting ducks and all that...' It's a playfulness I fondly remember from the days of his previous incarnation – although, catch this Doctor pretending to be a fool. He'd sooner drag up in a pair of old tights.

There's another rather Troughtonish moment when the Doctor is chucking stink bombs over his shoulder at Irongron's troops; not with the schoolboyish pleasure that the Second Doctor would have taken, but with quiet contentment all the same. He's almost whistling to himself as he dispatches an army – a very, very small army, yes, but it's the Doctor who really makes us see that. He's rather affronted when Sarah Jane implies he might have caused some permanent damage with his gas: he's not a soldier. He's just having fun.

Taken entire, this rather muted performance sometimes under-sells the drama of The Time Warrior. Even when he's not onscreen, we very rarely get a real sense of menace from Lynx the Sontaran – his 'ocular' hypnotism of Sarah Jane Smith notwithstanding. Lynx doesn't seem to pose a great threat to the world: we never get a real sense of what effect his 'time meddling' will be, nor does anybody really seem to care overly about the scientists he's abducted from the 20th century.

In fact, the story has a weird effect, like a rather crudely taken photograph. Everybody at the centre of the shot – essentially the Doctor, the villains, and the new girl in town – are acutely in focus, but the other elements of the composition range from slightly to extremely blurry. It's the Brigadier I feel sorry for. A few years ago, it felt as if he and the Doctor were co-stars of this series, and now he's basically required for thirty seconds in episode one, to set the scene and raise an eyebrow. Nick Courtney plays the scene with good grace, but the Brig in conversation with Lynx is a missed opportunity.

As would Lady Eleanor in conversation with Lynx. Or, indeed, with Bella Emberg. Lady Eleanor is just short of being one of the Pertwee era's great female characters – few and far between though they are. In Season 10, we had none at all in The Three Doctors, the lovable Shirna in Carnival of Monsters, the President of Earth (okay, I'll admit, that's not bad) in Frontier in Space, one rather soppy Thal in Planet of the Daleks and Nancy, the companion that never was, with her deadly mushroom bake and existential flute-playing (or whatever it is Clifford says she's doing with her instrument). Eleanor is strong, wise and charming; I could also wish for a bit more of the Mary Berry of her day, Meg, played by Sheila Feay and a really bizarre wig.

But the woman of the match is obviously and incomparably Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Katy Manning is irreplaceable, and without an eye for Doctor Who history, you might worry about the show after her departure. Remember when they recast Jamie for an episode? Remember when Vicki's place in the Ship was taken by Katarina? But Sladen walks into the show and owns it, instantly. 'Oh, I could murder a cup of tea!'

It's funny, because Robert Holmes wastes no time on any of Sarah's background. It should be fairly pitiful that all we know about her is that she's a journalist with an aunt, and that she frequently says, 'Ooh, men!' like a character from Acorn Antiques. But he gives Sarah so much to do and say, that between Holmes and Sladen, Sarah Jane is vividly there, from the get go, and she's there by accident, as all the best companions are.

She took a chance, a wrong turning or a right one, and there it was – an unexpected new friend, unexpected new trouble, a man who looks like a currant bun with legs, and a man who takes it all in his stride.


Of course the Doctor doesn't get all grumpy with her. He knows a new best friend when he sees her...


Coming next, a story I've never seen... Apparently it's just 
called INVASION!! (Deja vu...?)

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Green Death

She's off.

It feels like ages since Jo Grant came into the Doctor's life and began changing things. In those earlier stories, she quite often bears the brunt of his bad temper – and she in turn doesn't quite 'get' him. It's not until Colony in a Space that she can accept the Tardis is real, that he's not a fantasist. And to be fair, even a mad alien scientist in an Edwardian cape is a bit of a leap to one who travels  in time and space.

Perhaps it's a change of view for Jo – that scientists can be as heroic and crusading as soldiers. After all, her original ambition, facilitated by her Uncle, is to join the services – and before falling for Professor Jones, she tries dating Captain Yates. (Can't quite see that relationship going places.) Since then, she's been a humanising force on the Doctor, who has generally cheered up and calmed down. In return, she's become a woman of the universe, to the extent that she can reject the Master's hypnotism and generally talk down to him, before walking out of the Tardis doors, alone, into the alien night of Spiridon...


I still don't think she was ever quite on the same page as him though. Not like Zoe, for instance, who bravely stowed away in the Doctor's old sea-chest to discover the Universe. Jo's travels in time and space tend to be accidental and slightly reluctant. She's not fazed by them – she disputes with planetary colonists and rude-looking aliens without hesitation. Jo is always self-assured, passionate and morally certain: to coin a phrase, down-to-earth. But generally that's where she wants to be. 'There's only one little world I want to see right now,' she says, almost wearily, after all the fun on the Planet of the Daleks. 'Home.'

We're so used to show-runners' arcs these days, the original series can seem rather rackety and thrown together by comparison. But this season, beginning with The Three Doctors' liberation of the Tardis and its crew, travels rather satisfyingly to this announcement of Jo's. The Green Death is the story in which Jo Grant leaves not just the Doctor, but UNIT – and if it wasn't for Professor Jones, it might not have been such a clean break. The Doctor is clearly on the threshold of a new life away from Earth, and one feels rather certain that's not a life Jo would have joined him in.

From the Dawning of Aquarius to her stack-heeled boots and now, her passion for environmentalism, she's associated with the here and now. 'Well,' she says about the Tardis in Frontier in Space, with flippant prophecy, 'I'm never going in that thing again.'

Not that she hasn't learned from her adventures. I've reflected a couple of times on the visions of future Earth she's had: over-developed, uninhabitable, unsustainable, even ungovernable, threatened by fear and greed and waste. These are thematic connections rather than literal ones – Jo never even witnesses the ministerial self-interest that hands complete control over to Global Chemicals in Episode Two. But a lot of care has been taken with references back to Jo's arrival. Only the production team of the time and fans of today can really appreciate these: when Jo talks about her job description being 'tell the Doctor how brilliant he is,' for instance, she's quoting a line from three years earlier!

It feels a far cry from some of the 1960s seasons, where individual stories shine but the lives of the regulars – and their ongoing stories – are treated with ambivalence. The overriding feeling with the Jo Grant era, for me, is that the writers believe in the strength of their leads, in the security of this family (in part, because of the actors performances), and enjoy throwing them into new situations. In all the years I've been watching Who in sequence, this is a moment when it really feels like a series rather than a show. It would have made a perfectly fitting last story for the Master, too. As it is, it brings to an end the chronicles of that UNIT family.


What about the Doctor, though? If Jo Grant was a reluctant traveler in time and space, the Doctor has been reluctant to leave without her. After bridling so long at his confinement, it feels as if his main tie to the Earth and his main excuse for not returning to a bootless existence among the stars has been suddenly taken away – and after his solitary voyage to the fabled Metebelis 3 (has nobody ever said how brilliant that planet's name is?) he seems grateful to scramble back to Earth, to a world of mines and silly disguises and mathematical flautists called Nancy. Where exactly does he belong?

Yes, he's changed. He's at risk, you might think, of losing his Doctorishness, his capacity to transcend the present day. Yet that's exactly what his extra-terrestrial, mystical blue sapphire connotes: a very 70s sort of transcendentalism, requiring a physical bauble (whereas in the 60s they just did it, lived it, breathed it) but still effective. His conversations with BOSS, where he seems to take real pleasure in disdainfully scuppering its plans, are good to see and great to watch. And despite the coming departure of his longest ally, Pertwee seems more comfortable than ever in this scene – baiting a disembodied voice (but what a voice!).


So perhaps, he's off too. Perhaps this is just what he needs. But to where, and with whom? Who could possibly take the place of Katy Manning's consummately performed Josephine Grant...?

Scarier than any story this season, but also cosier and camper (escape in milk float to hippy commune, for example), this is a strong story by a team with real fondness for the world they've constructed - and a forlorn recognition that nothing goes on forever.



Friday, 27 March 2015

Planet of the Daleks

Apparently, with this story I officially arrive at the midway point of pre-2005 Doctor Who. I am deep in the thick of the alien jungle, green light bathing my face, up to my pac-a-mac elbows in deadly plant spume, weird Dick Mill bird noises screeching round my bewildered head. But doesn't it feel a good deal further from Survival than An Unearthly Child? More to the point, doesn't 1964's The Dead Planet feel very near?

After the mordant political allegory of the previous story – well, alright, after the Master and his sardonic, thoroughly 1970s attitude to everyone he meets –
this story is utterly wide-eyed. Political machinations and humanity's latent fear of the Other are displaced as threats by invisible aliens, eye-plants and – 'Daleks!' Even in the 1960s, the show was never as Flash Gordon as this, with its improvised air rafts and ice volcanoes. What with the gaudy colour scheme, this feels more like the Chad Valley Give-A-Show Projector era.

I already miss the Master. Without him around, pretty much everybody in the story is just too nice. Too selfless. Too sweet. The Master is above such things, and one can imagine him rolling his eyes at any number of homilies from Uncle Pertwee in this story, not to mention the stone-age sexual politics governing the Thals romantic relationships. The Master isn't just evil – he's amoral, completely uncommitted to a principle, an objective or another person. He has the detachment of a TV viewer: he smokes and drinks and laughs, rather cynically, at anyone taking themselves too seriously.

But this is a story completely without that cynicism, and we are encouraged to set ours aside for the duration of the story too. The production team are aiming for high grade escapism, and do you know what? I think they do a fantastic job. The story moves at a fair pace, six episodes feeling like four, and the many outrageous set-pieces, the weird planet of Spiridon and its subterranean city, are painted on the screen in wonderfully gaudy hues. It's a massive improvement on Solos, and even Omega's anti-world.

Another improvement concerns the Daleks.  Back in the Day, they looked and sounded about as threatening as a clothes airer with a cat stuck in it – a far cry from the devious, quasi-demonic villains of the 1960s. In this story, David Maloney pulls them back from that ignominy. They still don't behave like the sharpest egg-whisks in the kitchen, with so many plans to attack the Universe they can't pick one to go with first, and end up a) locking themselves in a room with their own deadly contagion, b) situating their army fatally close to a deadly volcano, and c) leaving their spaceship unguarded so their enemies can just stroll in and fly away in it.

But they sound proper. Crunchy. And hysterical. They rant like coked-up executives having mental breakdowns. Their Supreme, who looks utterly edible, goes so far as to exterminate one of his inferiors after too much bad news in the board room: sort of like the denouement of The Apprentice, but with ring modulators and luminous eyestalks. Brilliant.

There's even a scene where the Doctor has to clamber into a nest of groggy Daleks, their sucker arms twitching at his velvet coat-tails. It's one example of a story doing style over substance, but doing it pretty deliciously.

As well as being midway through the series, I have my own particular fondness for this story. Shown on Friday nights for the thirtieth anniversary, Planet of the Daleks was the last Who I watched not as a fan. I saw it with the detachment of any other television viewer, even with some amusement. (When I bought The Dead Planet script-book in 1994, it was 'for a laugh'. Ha.) I thought of it as entirely representative of the Pertwee era, and in fact, of Doctor Who in general.

Funnily enough, sitting here and writing this now, I can't tell whether I was right or wrong.

But I do think it's a pity we don't have a shot of the Thals entering the Dalek spaceship at the story's end, a fair-haired man already at the controls. A man who turns to greet them, lifts a black-gloved hand, sweeps off the blonde wig, to reveal...



Saturday, 21 March 2015

Frontier in Space

Doctor Who is a lovely example of the wise adage, ‘Less is more’, along with the philosophy, ‘Wise adages are for wimps, let’s give it a try anyway.’ Every now and then, its makers decide to go epic, grand, Cecil B. DeMille crazy. The temptation is there: your canvas is the size of the history of the Universe, can you really restrict your painting to one corner at a time? And when Doctor Who goes epic, the running time always goes up – possibly to stretch the budget a bit further, possibly to fit in extra world-building and character stuff.

From The Daleks’ Master Plan to The End of Time, via Evil of the Daleks, The Invasion and The War Games, with Day of the Doctor thrown in for good measure: small is beautiful but big is special. And so with Frontier in Space and its sequel Planet of the Daleks.

These last two are interesting, in that they’re essentially a remake of that big Hartnell mega-story. Future dystopias, Global Presidents struggling to hold onto power, prison ships, weird-looking aliens in galactic peace treaties, and the Daleks: they’re all here. The Monk has been supplanted by the Master. Jo, like Katarina, is imprisoned in an airlock, though she comes out of that a bit better. It’s a bold idea, for an era without VHS: to return to the ideas, and ‘reimagine’ them for the new era.

They skipped the Dixon of Dock Green parody, but then, life isn't fair.

I’m a big fan of The Daleks’ Master Plan, and a 1970s tribute is justified. I wouldn’t have minded another remake with Davison, Ainley, Davros and Beryl Reid – and another with Smith, Kingston and some CGI Varga Plants. The Pertwee era brings swagger, helped by some familiar faces and ideas: look at Jo Grant, chewing gum in her calf-length platform boots, telling the Doctor off for a ‘traffic accident in space’, then asking whether the Earth Empire is the same one she saw on Solos, and are the Ogrons working for the Daleks...?

It’s a very good story for Jo. She gets a lot of funny lines, two good outfits, she talks sense to the Draconian Emperor and puts the Master in his place: ‘Oh well, can’t win ‘em all!’ In fact, she gives us perhaps the big moment of the story, even the season. Rejecting the Master’s hypnosis, she then overcomes his little box of frights. This is a story about the power of fear, but ‘It doesn’t work on me any more,’ says Jo.

It’s a timely bit of progression, with only two more stories of Ms Grant still to enjoy. When a companion isn’t scared any more, it’s probably time for somebody new.

Unfortunately, it’s not timely in a narrative sense. Really this should be the conclusion of the story, not thrown away as a cliff-hanger resolution. It’s typical of a story that never quite knows when it’s underway. Rather peculiarly, the Daleks travel across space to wave from a cliff-top, then set off for home: a twist delayed too far, another cliff-hanger missed. This is the thing about over-extending Who: it never ends well. Or, it might end well and open well, but for several episodes in the middle you’ll be checking your watch.

Never when Roger Delgado is onscreen, though. I’m not big on the Doctor having a recurring nemesis, but there’s no two ways about it – this works. Has worked. It’s the end of an era. The end of a true peer for the Doctor, now that the Brigadier’s been rewritten as a military buffoon; the end of a superb, sharp counterpoint to the Doctor and Jo’s almost oversweet moral certainty; the end of a delicious performance, which Malcolm Hulke supplies with endless riches: the Master has more character moments, victories and funny lines than the Doctor's had all season.

Perhaps that's the real reason this story never quite galvanises. The Doctor fades into a rather bland hero: even his outfit seems less dandyish, somehow, shirts less frill-fronted, frock coat less frockish.


But of course, the story’s not over – not in any sense. In the last five minutes, where nothing makes sense, the Doctor is fatally wounded. In a Tenth Planet-esque effort of will, he clutches the console, desperately contacting the Time Lords. The Tardis flies into the darkness – the atmosphere is grave – the scene is set...