Category Archives: Doctor Who

Who Review: The Pilot

Bill Potts, canteen worker at St Luke’s University, has a curious mind and a tender heart. Both will get her into trouble when she encounters a girl with a star in her eye. The girl, Heather, is bothered about a puddle that shouldn’t be there, and what she sees inside. But the real trouble begins when the puddle starts following Bill. And who does Bill turn to for help? A professor at the university who has just agreed to take her on as a private student. But he’s no ordinary professor. His lectures are eccentric and popular, he has the strangest looking pens in a mug on his desk, and he has full-sized police telephone box in the corner. The professor, who likes to be called the Doctor, investigates the puddle and realizes something’s wrong. The puddle doesn’t reflect a mirror image; the reflection is the right way around. Something alien is at work, and when the Doctor invites Bill into the TARDIS for safety, she is introduced to a world beyond her imagination. If she survives the girl in the water, she might never want to leave…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

The first episode of the Doctor Who re-boot’s tenth season is, in itself, a bit of a reboot. After saying goodbye to Clara and River Song, the Doctor and his companion-butler Nardole are on Earth, where the Doctor is posing as a university professor. Exactly what he’s a professor of is not mentioned, though Bill says he talked one time about poetry when he was supposed to be lecturing on physics, so I presume it’s something in the sciences. We are treated to a sample of the Doctor’s lecturing–a monologue on time and relative dimension in space, and how life is a series of pictures like frames in a movie. It sounded impressive, and makes sense within the impossible universe of Doctor Who. Mind you, Peter Capaldi could make the phone book sound fascinating.

The title is a bit of a play on both the plot and the purpose of the story. The puddle creature is looking for a pilot, someone to follow. And this episode of Doctor Who is like a pilot episode, introducing the newbie to the world of Who in a way that won’t bore–and, in fact, will please–the seasoned Whovian. There are lots of nods to Classic Who: the mug of sonic screwdrivers, the picture of his granddaughter, Susan, on his desk (next to one of River Song), the “Out of Order” sign on the TARDIS (last seen in the First Doctor story, “The War Machines”), the Movellans (from the Fourth Doctor story, “Destiny of the Daleks”), and there were probably others either I missed, or I’m not remembering. The scene with the Movellans was a particularly nice touch. When the Doctor told Bill and Nardole they were entering a war zone, and we heard the Daleks, my first thought was, of course, the Time War. But no–it’s the war between the Movellans and the Daleks, referenced in “Destiny of the Daleks.”

The basic plot of the story was, I think, a bit weak. The water creature was really just a shape-shifting blob that wants a friend, and while its modus operandi was a bit aggressive, its intentions weren’t malicious. Hence the tears when Bill had to let it go. But new companion stories always tend to be light on plot; the focus is on introducing the newcomer, and getting the newcomer acquainted with the Doctor’s world. This time around, Steven Moffat managed an increasingly difficult task: making it fresh and new. Bill is clearly astounded at the TARDIS, but at first she thinks it’s a “knock-through” (i.e., the wall against which the TARDIS stands has been “knocked-through” to allow the TARDIS interior to extend beyond the parameters of the room), and that the inside of the TARDIS looks like a kitchen. It takes a good while before she gets to “it’s bigger on the inside!” She even asks where the toilet is–a topic I don’t think has been broached before now.

Then there’s the question of why the Doctor is at a university in Bristol. I don’t doubt the mysterious vault has something to do with it. New Who usually has a running theme, or story arc, throughout the season. My guess is that vault will play a central role in season ten, and speculation will run rampant as to what’s inside. Something to do with his regeneration, which we know is happening at Christmas… or maybe sooner? Is it something he has to keep a close eye on (hence the lecturing job, so he can stay close by)? Will the fact he throws caution to the wind and takes Bill on board the TARDIS be a factor in whatever happens with that vault in future episodes? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The performances are top-notch, as usual for New Who. Pearl Mackie is a relative unknown, even to British television viewers, but she gives a solidly genuine performance, owning every line. A very promising start, and, I daresay, a bright post-Who future on television if she keeps this up. I’m looking forward to seeing how her character develops over the next eleven weeks.

In all, this is a good start to the series, despite the story itself being far from one of Moffat’s best. As I said, we can forgive that since it was a great introduction to Bill Potts, and Doctor Who as a whole. Definitely one for the new Whovian to watch.

Doctor Who: New Series 10

This coming Saturday, April 15th, sees the start of the tenth series of the Doctor Who re-boot that began in 2005. It promises to be a momentous season, as it’s the last season for both show-runner Steven Moffat, as well as Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi.

WARNING! There may be some spoilers in what follows!

So, what do we know? As of the posting of this article, here’s the main stuff. First, the episode titles. Not all have been released, but we have these:

Episode No. Title Writer
01 The Pilot Steven Moffat
02 Smile Frank Cottrell Boyce
03 Thin Ice Sarah Dollard
04 Knock Knock Mike Bartlett
05 Oxygen Jamie Mathieson
06 Extremis Steven Moffat
07 The Pyramid at the End of the World Peter Harness
08 The Lie of the Land Toby Whithouse
09 The Empress of Mars Mark Gatiss
10 The Eaters of Light Rona Monro
11 TBA Steven Moffat
12 TBA Steven Moffat

Notes

  • A new companion, Bill Potts, will be joining the Doctor in episode 01.
  • Episodes 06, 07, and 08 comprise a three-part story, the first since New Series 3 (“Utopia”, “The Sound of Drums”, and “Last of the Time Lords”).
  • The Ice Warriors will return in Episode 09.
  • The Master will be back. Yes, you heard read that correctly.
  • Rona Monro, Episode 10’s writer, is the first Classic Series writer to write for the New Series. She was one of only two women to write for the Classic Series. Her story, “Survival,” was the last of the 1963-1989 run.
  • Episodes 11 and 12 comprise a two-part story that will feature a variety of Cybermen, including the original Mondas Cybermen from 1966, and the Cybus Industries Cybermen from 2006.
  • There will be a Christmas special, in which the Twelfth Doctor will regenerate. New show-runner Chris Chibnall will write the Thirteenth Doctor’s first scene.

The Who production team have done a good job controlling leaks, so there’s nothing here that hasn’t been announced officially in some venue (interviews, articles, etc.).

In the latest trailer, there’s a sequence at the end where the Doctor’s hand glows orange, as if the regeneration is starting. This might be just a tease, but, personally, I think it would be cool if the regeneration happened in Episode 12. No-one would be expecting it, and since the identity of the Thirteenth Doctor has not been announced, it would possibly be the biggest shock/surprise of the show’s history.  Even topping “Earthshock”‘s double-whammy (surprise, the Cybermen! Surprise surprise, Adric dies!). As cool as that might be, I doubt they’ll do it. I expect there will be an official “New Doctor” announcement in the Summer, with a simulcast show to help drum up publicity and prepare people for the Christmas special.

To whet your appetite for Saturday, here are the Season 10 trailers:

Those are the highlights. Your thoughts?

Who Review: The Armageddon Factor

There’s only one more segment of the Key to Time for the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 to find. The tracer leads them to the planet Atrios, which is in the midst of a devastating war with neighboring planet Zeos. Despite heavy casualties, the Atrian Marshall believes victory is close at hand. However, Princess Astra, sole survivor of Atrios’s ancient royal family, wants peace with Zeos and for the bloodshed to cease. But her attempts to communicate with Zeos go unheeded. When the TARDIS crew arrive, they are, of course, suspected of being Zeon spies. It doesn’t help that Princess Astra is abducted around the time of their arrival. The Doctor becomes convinced that Astra is the key to finding the sixth segment, so it is critical they find her. But all is not as it seems. Danger is close at hand for the Doctor and his friends as dark forces lurk behind the scenes. Someone will stop at nothing, even to the point of using those closest to the Doctor, to get the Key to Time…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

The final story in the “Key to Time” arc was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, a writing team whose previous efforts (“The Mutants,” “The Three Doctors,” and “The Hand of Fear” to name three) demonstrate they know how to do the job. While their Who stories are not always the best, most are good, and I think “Armageddon” is one of these better ones. They manage to keep “padding” down to a minimum (which is always a challenge for a six-parter) by making sure all the various story elements contribute to the plot, and they keep a good pace, with plenty of drama and humor in the script to maintain interest.

Episode one starts with what appears to be a scene from a soap opera, or some kind of propaganda film that extols the virtue of sacrifice for the sake of victory. The fact we see this on the television screens in the ruins of the hospital, filled with the wounded and dying, helps orient us to the situation on Atrios. The power-hungry Marshal will bleed the planet dry to win, but Princess Astra sees only death and destruction, and wants an end of it.

Slowly we peel back the layers of what’s going on. Astra’s messages to Zeos don’t ever seem to get through. Not even a bounce-back. The Marshal’s strange conversations with a mirror, and the little black cube on his neck. The way the tracer, the stick used by the Doctor and Romana to find the segments of the Key to Time, is drawn to Princess Astra, as if she is somehow connected to it. Then there’s the “Shadow,” who introduces himself as the Doctor’s adversary. Like the Doctor, he has been sent by a Guardian on a special quest. But as his name suggests, the Guardian he works for is not White, like the Doctor’s. This is all good use of the six parts, allowing the story time to unfold.

When the Doctor finally seems to figure out where the sixth segment is, one might wonder why he doesn’t simply retrieve it and leave. The way Baker and Martin have woven the plot makes it impossible for the Doctor to leave without dealing with the Marshal and the Shadow. The Marshal pilots a ship to launch a missile attack on Zeos. This will trigger the computer on Zeos to self-destruct, taking Zeos, Atrios, and anything else in its vicinity with it. And even if the Doctor manages to stop the computer, the missile strike will ultimately have much the same effect. The Doctor uses the Key to Time, with a fake sixth segment, to hold off the Marshal’s attack, but because it is impure, it will only hold him off for a limited time. By the time the Doctor is sure of the location of the sixth segment, there’s no time to replace the fake one with the real one. For a Who story to work, the writer needs to find a compelling reason for the Doctor to stick around and not just get back in the TARDIS and leave. Baker and Martin do a good job of that here.

With regard to that sixth segment, it appears as if the Doctor understood the secret early on. But later, he still seems uncertain. Perhaps the look of surprise when the Shadow tells him he’s been looking at the sixth segment all along was feigned, though I’m not sure. Romana certainly seems in the dark, though she notices the way the tracer reacts to things Princess Astra has worn. It’s only at the very end she cottons on. Maybe they both didn’t want to believe it, given what it would mean…?

This story introduces a new Time Lord: Drax, who was in the “Class of ’93” with the Doctor (or “Theta Sigma” as he calls him). Unlike the Doctor, Drax failed his exams in the Academy, and ended up traveling the universe as a repair man. He built the computer on Zeos for the Shadow, but was then imprisoned. Throwing Drax into the story in episode five could be seen as “filler,” but he does play an important part in helping the Doctor defeat the Shadow. He’s an interesting character, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing show up in the New Series.

The conclusion to the story, and the “Key to Time” arc is both understandable and unsatisfying. The Doctor sums up the dilemma well in his creepy “there is no more free will” speech that his gives to Romana with eyes rolled back. “I can do anything I want because I have the Key to Time!” he tells her. And he’s right: no-one should have that kind of power. It’s just a shame it took all this time and traveling to figure it out. If it wasn’t for the fact that many of the stories have been enjoyable, and the Doctor and Romana have been a pleasure to watch, one might be forgiven for calling the whole escapade a waste of time.

To sum up, this is a good story, and worth the Whovian’s attention. Possibly the saddest part is the fact it’s Mary Tamm’s last as Romana. Of the two Romanas, she’s my favorite. I like the fact we see her grow from arrogant academic to being a student again, and Mary does such a good job of showing that growth. In the hands of the right script writer, she could have developed her character further for another season or two. But that wasn’t to be.

Who Review: The Power of Kroll

The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 continue their quest for the six segments of The Key to Time. According to the tracer, the fifth segment is located on the third moon of the planet Delta Magna. Surprisingly, the moon’s surface is covered with grass land and swamps, and is inhabited by green-skinned people whose dress and weaponry suggest they are relatively primitive. But they aren’t the only people on the moon. A crew from Delta Magna has set up a methane refinery, and are mining the moon for its large deposits of methane gas. The native inhabitants, whom the crew call “Swampies”, believe this mining activity will disturb their giant swamp god, Kroll, and bring disaster. The Swampies plan to strike back, and a gun runner, hired by an unknown supplier, is providing them with weapons to that end. Not long after their arrival, Romana is captured by the Swampies, believing her to be one of the “dry foots.” They plan to sacrifice her to appease the wrath of Kroll. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds himself an involuntary guest of the refinery crew, who accuse him of being a “Swampie-lover,” and suspect he is an emissary of the group supplying guns to the natives. The crew leader, Thawn, has a particular animosity toward the Swampies, and hence a vitriolic intolerance for those who might be siding with them. With K-9 stranded in the TARDIS (he doesn’t handle water very well), the Doctor and Romana need to find the fifth segment and escape before they suffer the wrath of Thawn, or the wrath of Kroll…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

This fifth story in the “Key to Time” arc was broadcast over Christmas and New Year of 1978/1979, and was written by the awesome and inimitable Robert Holmes. As we might expect of a Holmes story, there are some vivid characters and an interesting plot. On one level this is a story about racism, since the “Swampies” are not considered of equal worth to humans by the colonists. This story is also about colonialism, and not just the obvious (i.e., British colonialism), but also the co-opting of Native American lands in the United States by the white men. The “Swampies” formerly inhabited Delta Magna, but were shipped off to this third moon by these Earth colonists. When that moon was found to be rich in methane, the colonists planned to displace the “Swampies” yet again in order to mine their land. If that’s not enough, you also have a subtle parody of peace protesters who are not averse to using violence to make their point. In “Kroll,” the “Swampies” are being supplied weapons by a gun-runner who it is believed work for the “Sons of Earth”–a pacifistic organization that promotes equal rights for the “Swampies.” While it turns out this group wasn’t actually supplying the guns (a nice plot twist), the point is made that they wouldn’t be above doing that kind of thing to achieve their ends.

Even with all that story layering going on, this is considered to be one of Holmes’s less-than-stellar efforts. I don’t know that I agree with that assessment. There are a number of things that let the story down, but not many of them have to do with the story itself. The giant tentacle that attacks Harg is profoundly unrealistic, and hearkens back eight years to the tentacles that attacked the Third Doctor in “Spearhead from Space.” The “Swampie” acting is a bit theatrical, and pushes credibility. Helping their unrealism is the fact that their hair is made from strips of dark green thick knitted pads sown together and frayed at the ends. And when the great Kroll makes his appearance (he’s a ginormous giant squid), well, he’s not quite as impressive as I’m sure the production team hoped he would be. Actually, I take that back. Kroll’s very first appearance at the end of episode three is impressive. The shot of Kroll sitting in the water, tentacles slowly waving on either side, and the little boat in front for perspective, is possibly one of the best effects shots of the Classic Series. That does look believable. From then on, however, all the shots of Kroll suck.

And then there’s the scene where our heroes are tied to a rack with vines. The theory is that as sunlight streams through the small porthole in the roof, the vines dry and shrink, pulling on the rack and stretching the victims. It’s a neat theory. I have no clue if it would actually work in real life. Might not the vines in fact become brittle as they dry out? Would they really shrink that much?  As I said, it’s a clever idea, if a bit fanciful. I’m far more concerned with the way they escape: the Doctor singing a high-pitched noted that breaks the glass and lets rain in to swell the vines. This is such a deus ex machina escape, it’s not worthy of a writer of Holmes’s caliber. After all, if the Doctor has had this ability all along, I’m sure there are plenty of times he could have used it to escape tight situations. Why suddenly remember he could do that now?

There are some first-class performances on the story, especially from Philip Madoc. Madoc has played bad guys on the show before (most notably The War Lord in “The War Games”), but this time he is one of the colonists who, while not a “Swampie” lover, doesn’t want to see them come to harm. Unlike his superior officer. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm are excellent (I don’t think Tom Baker ever put in a bad turn as the Doctor). And John Leeson, usually the voice of K-9, gets to act in front of the cameras, which is nice to see.

I like the fact that the “monster” attacking Romana at the end of episode one turns out to be a “Swampie” in a monster costume. I’m sure there were plenty of people watching the cliffhanger saying, “That’s so obviously a man dressed up!”–and it actually is in the story. Nice. I also liked the Doctor’s line: “Progress. That’s a very flexible word. It can mean almost anything you want!” Very true, both in this context, and many others.

I would recommend “The Power of Kroll,” even though it’s not a must-see. Despite its shortcomings, the story is strong and interesting, and there are some good twists and performances.

Who Review: The Androids of Tara

Continuing the quest for the six segments of the Key to Time, the tracer takes the TARDIS to the idyllic, Earth-like planet of Tara, and a country on the verge of crowning a new king. At a designated hour, Prince Reynart must be ready to receive the crown, otherwise he will forfeit the throne to the next in line, his cousin, Count Grendel of Gracht. Grendel’s plan is to hold Reynart’s beloved Princess Strella captive to persuade him not to go through with the ceremony. When the TARDIS lands, Romana goes off to find the fourth segment while the Doctor catches up on some fishing. Romana quickly locates the fourth segment, but encounters a wild beast. She is rescued by Count Grendel, who offers her rest–in fact, he insists. Grendel observes the striking resemblance between Romana and the Princess Strella, and is convinced she must be an android. Romana narrowly avoids being cut up for parts, but ends up in Grendel’s prison along with Strella. Meanwhile, the Doctor has been captured by Reynart’s men and employed to repair an android they hope to use as a decoy to faciliate Reynart’s safe entry into the castle. But things go awry, Reynart is captured, and now the Doctor and Romana can’t leave until they deal with Grendel, and see Reynart installed as the rightful king of Tara.

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

This is the second story in a row from David Fisher, and unusual in that Romana finds the fourth segment of the “Key to Time” at the beginning. However, just as Romana tries to leave with it, she is captured, the Doctor is captured, and they spend the rest of the story trying not to get killed, and saving Prince Reynart and Princess Strella from the evil machinations of Count Grendel.

“The Androids of Tara” is a fairly solid story, unashamedly based on The Prisoner of Zenda, which tells of a prince imprisoned on the eve of his coronation, and the use of a double to impersonate him so the coronation can go ahead. Of course, in the case of the Doctor Who story, all the doubles are androids. In a lovely twist, skill in electronics and cybernetics is viewed as peasant work. Usually in sci-fi, such skills are reserved for the elites and the intellectuals.

It also gives Mary Tamm a lot of screen time since she takes on four roles. Not only does she have her regular part as the Doctor’s companion, Romana, but she also plays Princess Strella, and both Romana and Strella’s android counterparts. I have to say, the android acting in the story is quite good. Especially from Prince Reynart, who we probably see as an android more often than as a real person.

I’m afraid I can’t be quite as generous with regard to the “beast” that attacks Romana just as she retrieves the Key segment. A furry body suit and a solid “monster” mask are hardly going to convince anyone. But I supposed they did what they could with the money they had. To make matters worse, the man in the suit acts like a demented gorilla–I’m not exactly sure what he was trying to achieve.

The setting of the story is interesting. Tara seems to have a Renaissance feel to it, certainly with the castle and the costumes–possibly an homage to the original Zenda story? And yet they use laser arrows and electric swords, so there is a mix of old world style with new world technology.

Perhaps the highlight of the story is the sword fight in episode four between the Doctor and Count Grendel. The Doctor feigns stupidity to begin with, but soon proves himself to be the better swordsman in a battle that takes them beyond the courtroom, out onto the castle walkways over the moat, where the Doctor claims victory, and the Count swims away.

Some of the less-than-stellar moments include the imprisoned Reynart hitting a helmeted soldier with a manacle, and knocking him unconscious, which seems a little far-fetched. Also, when Grendel lays siege to the Doctor in the cottage, he knows the Doctor is unarmed, so why didn’t he send his men in? As it is, he gives the Doctor plenty of time to make good his escape by means of a back door cut by K-9. And then there’s the stunning inability to tell the difference between an android and a real person, most notably when Romana is mistaken for an android facsimile of Strella. Could they not tell by her body temperature, her pulse, her involuntary reflexes (e.g., swallowing), and her breathing that she was not an android? Or are their androids that complex and detailed? It’s also a little annoying that Romana keeps getting captured. She’s not that helpless!

All in all, despite its flaws, this is a good Who story. One to watch if you have the opportunity, but not a must-see.

Who Review: The Stones of Blood

The 100th Doctor Who story finds the TARDIS crew tracking the third segment of the Key to Time to Earth. The tracer seems to think the segment is somewhere in an ancient stone circle, but as local surveyors Professor Rumford, and her colleague Vivien Fay, tell them, there are discrepancies in the records with regard to the number of stones that should be there. The tracer is unable to get a fix on the segment, so the Doctor and Romana decide to investigate further. What they discover, however, digs a little too deeply into things that certain locals would rather are left alone. Those locals make up a druidic cult that regularly holds sacrifices to the goddess Calliach in the midst of the stones. But the stones are not ordinary stones. The cult leader feeds them with blood, and they glow in response, as if they are alive. Is it possible that the stones are not of this world? Might that explain the strange indentations in the ground, and the confusion over how many stones should be in the circle? As the Doctor and Romana get closer to the truth of the cult and the stones, the more they put their lives in danger of powers that even the villagers couldn’t have imagined…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Not only is “The Stones of Blood” the centenary story, but it also broadcast during Doctor Who’s fifteenth anniversary week. Quite an achievement for a show that faced cancellation more than once in the Sixties. By November of 1978, it was a national institution with high ratings and widespread cultural recognition. And with Tom Baker in the leading role, it had never had a more iconic and enthusiastic advocate and spokesman. This was, indeed, a great time to be a Doctor Who fan.

The first TARDIS scene has the Doctor pointlessly recapping for Romana the premise of the “Key to Time” arc. Okay, so it’s not entirely pointless. He takes the opportunity to let her know about the threat of the Black Guardian, something he had been told not to mention. But really, this recap is for the sake of viewers who either forgot what the “Key to Time” is about, or are joining late. We haven’t met the Black Guardian yet, but as we will discover, his headgear of choice looks like it’s supposed to be some kind of crow or raven. I wonder if that has any bearing in the fact that cult leader Mr. Dufrese has a crow that spooks Romana? A fore-shadowing, perhaps?

The story starts with some kind of druidic ritual, rite, or ceremony being performed by people in robes in a stone circle at night. It all looks very Dennis Wheatley-Hammer Horror, including the use of blood, though we don’t see an actual sacrifice. I’m inclined to take this as an homage to the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era of the show; it’s certainly the kind of thing they would have done. And I think that’s part of what makes “Stones of Blood” the creepy, atmospheric story it is. But it’s not just another “Talons of Weng-Chiang.” Part of the story takes place in space–hyperspace, to be precise–where the Doctor is put on trial by the shapeless Megara. So the story shifts between the dark and mysterious, to a galactic Perry Mason, where the Doctor plays games with legal technicalities to buy time for Romana. It’s an odd combination, but somehow it works.

This is a great story of strong female leads. Indeed, there are few male parts in the story. I don’t doubt this was at least somewhat deliberate, given the fact the show often came under fire for it’s treatment of female characters. Without doubt, the Doctor’s previous companion, Leela, was an attempt at a feisty female warrior, who was the equal of any man in combat. The new companion, Romana, is the Doctor’s intellectual equal, perhaps even better, and would be the smartest person in most rooms simply by showing up. Thankfully, though, these characters are not just for show, or to satisfy a demographic; they have depth and range, too. They are good characters, and well played. Professor Rumford and Vivien Fay are excellently conceived and performed, strong and forthright without losing a feminine sensibility; they’re not just “men in dresses.”

There are some particular points of interest in this story. First, the episode one cliffhanger doesn’t appear to be repeated at the beginning of episode two. The second part picks up right where we left off. That’s highly unusual for Doctor Who. On the spaceship, the Doctor takes out his sonic screwdriver to open a door, but instead of zapping the door, he uses the end of the sonic screwdriver to physically break the seal that locks it! A nice twist. There’s a scene where a couple of people out camping encounter the stones and are killed by them. While you don’t see anything really gruesome, it is still quite gruesome. I’m surprised the censors let that pass.

The model spaceship in “Stones” is very good, however, the CSO model shots don’t really work well for me. If they had used film, that might have improved things, which is a shame because it really is well crafted. The same goes for the stones. They did a good job making them look stone-y, but once they start moving, they lose all sense of weight.

Probably the biggest surprise is what the third segment is. The story sets you up to think it’s one thing, but it isn’t. It’s quite cleverly done. And I’m not going to spoil it for you. 🙂

This story isn’t on the must-see list, but it is very good and worth your time. Especially if you’re missing the Gothic horror of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes days.

Who Review: The Pirate Planet

The quest for the six segments of the Key to Time continues. This time, the tracer takes the TARDIS crew to the planet Calufrax. The Doctor’s attempt to land fails, so Romana tries, and succeeds. The Doctor suspects something’s not right, and not simply because Romana succeeded where he failed. Calufrax is supposed to be cold and uninteresting, but the planet they land on is warm and thriving. Indeed, an announcement declares a new age of prosperity for the inhabitants. The people seem happy enough, though they live in fear of the Mentiads, strange robed people with powerful mental abilities who live under the planet’s surface. But as the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 soon discover in their quest for the the second segment, the planet holds a secret that even its inhabitants don’t know about. Only the planet’s ruler, the bombastic Captain, and his crew have any idea what’s going on. And the truth is more horrific than the Doctor could ever have imagined…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

This is the first script submitted to Doctor Who by up-coming writer Douglas Adams. At the time, Adams’s radio play, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” had just been broadcast, and he was riding the wave of success from that. A second series was due, and a book adaptation. Nevertheless, as a life-long Doctor Who fan, he relished the opportunity to write for the show. What we have here is classic Douglas Adams: clever and witty, with characters that ride a fine line between real and parody. There’s a good story that comes to us in pieces but gradually forms a complete picture as the serial progresses.

The Captain is the bombastic pirate, pilot of the planet that hops around the galaxy devouring smaller planets, mining them for their minerals, then spitting out what’s left. His right-hand man, Mr. Fibuli, grovellingly submits to every command of the Captain. The two of them remind me of Hook and Mr. Smee from Peter Pan.  And then there’s the Captain’s “nurse,” who spends most of the story skulking in the background. Little do we realize how important she is to the plot until near the end. When we first encounter the Mentiads, they seem hostile, but the Doctor finds out they are very misunderstood. Indeed, they recognize that the Doctor shares their desire to bring down the Captain and stop his evil plan.

There’s not much I can fault with this story. Perhaps the biggest plot hole I can find is the fact that the planet Calufrax is the second segment of the Key to Time. So, if the Captain hadn’t destroyed it to mine it for minerals, the Doctor would have destroyed it to convert it back into the second segment. I suppose one could argue being the second segment of the Key to Time is better than being sucked dry and having one’s remains mounted for display. Either way, the planet was doomed.

What impresses me the most about “The Pirate Planet,” however is the sheer imagination of the story. Everything from the Captain’s robot parrot (that gets into a laser fight with K-9) to the real reason the planet needs to destroy all those planets and harvest their minerals.

A point of interest: The Doctor and Romana use jelly babies to break the ice with the residents of the planet. However when the Doctor leaves a trail of confectionery from his white paper bag to tempt a guard away from his hover car, the candies are clearly Licorice Allsorts, not jelly babies.

Also, when the Captain announces “a new golden age of prosperity,” he talks of there being “wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.” This same phrase was used in the previous story, “The Ribos Operation.”

Must-see Who? Almost. Douglas Adams’s next Who story, “City of Death” certainly is. But this one is worth watching, and is one of the best freshman efforts of Who’s many writers to date. I wouldn’t quite call it essential, though. Others may differ. 🙂

Who Review: The Ribos Operation

After leaving Leela and K-9 on Gallifrey, the Doctor and K-9 Mark II plan a vacation. But their plans are curtailed by an impromptu summons from the White Guardian. He has an important mission for the Doctor: retrieve the six segments of the Key to Time. It seems this key is very powerful, and in the right hands can restore balance to the universe. In the wrong hands, it can do untold evil. They Key’s power for good is needed, but its six segments are scattered throughout time and space. The White Guardian has chosen the Doctor to find all six segments and return the Key to him. As the Doctor prepares to leave, the White Guardian tells him he has given him a new companion to help, and to beware the Black Guardian–the White Guardian’s evil counterpart–who will no doubt want to take the Key from the Doctor.

Using a rod, called a “tracer”, to detect the segments, the Doctor and new companion Romanadvoratrelundar (Romana, for short) travel to the icy planet of Ribos. There they encounter a couple of dodgy salesmen who are trying to sell the relatively primitive planet to the Graff Vynda-K. The Graff is looking for a base planet from which he can build up an army to take back his home planet from his brother. They convince the Graff that Ribos is full of the rare mineral jethrik, and they show him some encased in the Ribos treasury as proof (planted there earlier, of course). When the Doctor and Romana visit the treasury, the tracer is drawn to the jethrik. However, the dubious pair take it back before the Doctor and Romana can get to it. And when the Graff calls the salesmen’s bluff, our TARDIS heroes are counted along with the conspirators. The Doctor and Romana need to get the jethrik and escape Ribos, or face the wrath of the Graff Vynda-K…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

For season sixteen, script editor Anthony Read and producer Graham Williams wanted to try something different: a series of stories connected by a unifying theme. Instead of the Doctor wandering aimlessly around space and time, they wanted to give him a purpose, a task to accomplish. They came up with the idea of the Key to Time, split into six segments, that the Doctor has to retrieve. Each of the season’s six stories would be devoted to finding a segment. This would mean each story could be self-contained, but would serve the overall story arc.

The idea of unifying the series around a theme is not bad, and we’ll see that happen again in Tom Baker’s final season (“The E-Space Trilogy” and “The Master Trilogy” in Seasons 18 and 19). I have my doubts about the whole “Key to Time” premise, though. It seems a bit flimsy. Why would the powerful White Guardian send the Doctor to gather these fragments? Couldn’t he do it himself? And why now? Of course, the whole venture will prove to be a waste of time in the end (see “The Armageddon Factor”), which only further undermines the premise. Nevertheless, it introduces us to Romana, and gives us another great Robert Holmes story to kick the season off.

“The Ribos Operation” presents us–or maybe just me–with another title issue (see “The Seeds of Doom” and “The Masque of Mandragora”). My instinct is to pronounce the name of the planet so it rhymes with “Why, boss?” It is, in fact, pronounced Ree-bos. So, there you have it for anyone else that was wondering. Probably just me. Moving on…

The story proper begins (after all the “Key to Time” setup with the White Guardian) with the introduction of Romana. She is a Time Lord (or Time Lady, I suppose), fresh from The Academy, with glowing exam scores and a lot of experiential naivete. In other words, she has a lot of book-knowledge, but she hasn’t set foot outside her own front door (so to speak). This forms the basis of her relationship with the Doctor. At first they clash because she’s a smarty-pants know-it-all, and the Doctor has been around the universe a few times, and understands the limits of book-knowledge. As time goes on, he will come to rely upon her smarts and her technical skill, and she will come to respect his wisdom and experience. But this is just the beginning, so sparks fly.

Being a Robert Holmes story, “Ribos” not only is well-written, with an engaging story, but it has interesting characters. There really isn’t a straight-up “good guy” in the story (aside from the TARDIS crew). Garron and Unstoffe are con men, and while Unstoffe appears to have a conscience, he’s not above lying to get what he wants, and he is easily impressed by Garron’s cunning. Garron is the quintessential shady dealer, but even he has a moment of moral indignation near the end. The closest thing we have to a “good guy” is Binro the Heretic, a wonderful creation who adds some great emotional depth to the story. Binro is an outcast, and considered wacko because he is convinced the stars are suns, that Ribos goes around its sun, and that there are other worlds like Ribos circling other suns. His brief but heart-felt friendship with Unstoffe is quite touching.

The Graff Vynda-K is the real villain of the piece. Garron and Unstoffe (played by Nigel Plaskitt, also famous for playing Hartley Hare and Tortoise in “Pipkins“) are just out to make a fast buck, but the Graff is bent on murderous revenge against his brother. His eventual demise at the hands of the Doctor is quite brutal and goes a bit against character for the Doctor. After all, the Doctor knew that what he did (spoilers!) would kill the Graff, but he did it anyway. And what a great name: The Graff Vynda-K! Where did Holmes come up with that one?

I like the fact that we have three different plans colliding in this story. The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 want the first segment to the Key to Time, which they suspect is the jethrik. Garron and Unstoffe want to make a lot of money by “selling” Ribos (it isn’t theirs to sell) to the Graff for a substantial sum, claiming it has vast, untapped supplies of precious jethrik. The Graff wants a planet to rule so he can build an army to fight his brother who usurped his throne on his home planet. Ribos appeals to him because of the supposed availability of jethrik, which he could use to fund his campaign. So all three parties have different reasons for being there, and all three want the jethrik for different reasons. This creates drama and tension, which makes for good storytelling.

The main weakness of the story is the shrivenzale, which is a large rubbery monster that walks the caverns, and is used to guard the treasury. Thankfully, while he provides the episode one cliffhanger, he is otherwise relatively inconsequential, though painful to watch.

I would consider most Robert Holmes stories essential viewing because they are usually well constructed, with three-dimensional characters and great dialog. “The Ribos Operation” is no exception to this, though it’s not quite a classic like “Ark in Space” or “The Talons of Weng Chiang.” So, maybe not essential Who, but very highly recommended, and well worth your time.

Who Review: The Invasion of Time

The Doctor is behaving very strangely. First he leaves Leela and K-9 in the TARDIS while he consults with a group of aliens. They then travel to Gallifrey, where the Doctor demands to see Chancellor Borusa, and claims the Presidency, which is his by right after the death of the last President-elect, Chancellor Goth (see “The Deadly Assassin”). He orders that the induction ceremony take place as soon as possible, and that his chambers be redecorated to his specifications. This includes lining the walls with lead. Things go from strange to stranger when the Doctor orders all aliens expelled from the Citadel, including Leela. She is forced out into the wastelands, an environment that is all too familiar to her. Then the Doctor orders K-9 to take down the transduction barrier that protects Gallifrey, and laughs when three aliens materialize to take over control of Gallifrey. Has the Doctor turned traitor? And if so, why? Is Leela’s loyalty in the Doctor, despite his actions, misplaced? Or is there more to the Doctor’s apparent insanity than meets the eye…?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“The Invasion of Time” is credited to David Agnew, but there is no David Agnew. This was a pseudonym oft-used in the BBC when a script editor wrote a story. Since writer and script editor are two separate jobs, and it wasn’t permitted for one person to be credited for both on-screen, it was common practice for the script editor to use an assumed name as his writer credit. In this case, “David Agnew” is script editor Anthony Read and producer Graham Williams.

The premise of the story is good and original. The last time the Doctor was seen to be turning on his friends was in “The Evil of the Daleks.” In that story, the Second Doctor had a falling out with Jamie–though it was all part of a plan to trick his adversaries. Here, the Doctor needed to get Leela out of the way for her own good, which is why he ordered her to be banished. And, of course, the whole point of allowing the aliens to invade is to have them reveal themselves so K-9 can identify their home planet and beam them back home. The twist comes, however, when we learn at the end of episode four that the Vardan invasion was a ploy to lower Gallifreyan defenses to let the real invaders in: the Sontarans.

The appearance of the Sontarans was a genuine surprise. We hadn’t seen them since the Fourth Doctor’s first season story, “The Sontaran Experiment.” And my, haven’t they grown since then! They must have been eating their Weetabix, because they have developed eyelashes, and become quite tall. The problem with this is that the Sontarans are supposed to be a clone race, so these Sontarans should look like every other Sontaran. Not only that, but these Sontaran costumes are just not very good. The original 1975 costume was far superior. I’m not sure if this is the fault of the budget, or bad design, but whatever, it’s a bit of a let-down.

The last couple of episodes are essentially devoted to the Sontarans chasing people down corridors, and then chasing the Doctor and his friends around the TARDIS. I honestly don’t recall much plot going on in these final episodes, apart from Time Lady Rodan making a rather snazzy looking Demat Gun (a very powerful weapon forbidden by the Time Lords) that the Doctor uses to kill a Sontaran (which is itself a big surprise, given how much the Fourth Doctor hates guns and violence). The blast from the Demat Gun gives the Doctor amnesia concerning the events of this adventure, though I’m not entirely sure why that’s necessary. After all, that’s a very specific amnesia: not total, and not temporary. From a story perspective, if the Doctor is going to forget a certain event or story, there ought to be a reason. And I can’t think of a single one.

Leela is in her element working with the wasteland tribe to plan an attack on the Citadel. For one last time she gets to be the Sevateem warrior, firing arrows and throwing knives. It’s also kind of cool to see more of the TARDIS, including the swimming pool and the art gallery. But this does come off as padding to make what really is a four-part story into a six-parter.

And then we have Leela’s departure, which is simply lame. LAME. Louise Jameson, who played Leela, wanted her to be killed off, since that would be a fitting and noble exit for her character. In the end, the production team decided killing Leela would be too traumatic for the children in the audience. Instead, they contrived a romance between Leela and the Time Lord guard Andred, something that no-one would have seen coming. For all the screen time they have together, there’s not a moment when they spark, or seem to show any interest in each other aside from a mutual desire to stay alive. Would Leela seriously give up travelling with the Doctor to stay on Gallifrey with a guy she hardly knows? I don’t think so. K-9 stays on Gallifrey, too–again, for reasons not entirely clear. But never mind, somehow the Doctor has K-9 Mark II in a box ready to break out for next season!

As I said, this isn’t a bad idea for a Doctor Who story at all. Even bringing the Sontarans in as a double-twist is good. There’s just such a lot wrong with the costumes, the sets (the Doctor’s lead-lined door seems extremely flimsy), the acting (especially the extras), and the overall execution of the story. If anything, watch it for the first four episodes, but after that, feel free to wander off and make tea or check your email. You won’t miss much. If the Doctor can forget anything ever happened in this story, I’m sure we can too.

Who Review: Underworld

The TARDIS materializes at the end of the known universe on the R1C, a ship whose crew is on a quest to find a missing vessel, the P7E, which carries their valuable genetic race bank. The crew of the R1C are Minyans, a race who had received much help from the Time Lords in the past–so much so, they regarded the Time Lords as gods–but grew to resent Time Lord dominion over their planet, Minyos, and expelled them. The Minyans divided, and a civil war broke out that destroyed their world, leaving the two ships to find a new home. But the ships separated, and the crew of the R1C has been pursuing the P7E for thousands of years, using Time Lord technology to rejuvenate themselves when they become too old. Needless to say, as a Time Lord, the Doctor is not welcomed with open arms by the crew. Nevertheless, with the help of Leela and K-9, he proves his good intentions by helping the ship avoid being crushed by rocks when its size causes a gravitational pull that makes it the most attractive thing around. The ship crash lands through the soft surface of a planet in formation. But this is no ordinary planet, and there’s more to its hostile inhabitants than meets the eye…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin pull from Greek mythology for their tale, specifically culling from Jason and the Argonauts, and their quest for the golden fleece. Names have been changed to veil the reference (Jason is Jackson, the Minoans are the Minyans, Orpheus is Orfe, the Persephone is the P7E, etc.), but, as with the Gothic horror-based tales of the previous few seasons, it doesn’t really matter. Cast as a space quest, the story stands on its own, which is good for those who don’t know their Greek mythology.

As far as stories go, it’s not bad. I think the use of scientific principles to help explain key story elements, and add to the drama (in particular, the fact that large objects in space have gravitational pull), is well done. It’s certainly not the best Baker-Martin story, but it’s an entertaining four-parter with an engaging plot that doesn’t have a lot of holes (at least that I could find).

Where “Underworld” suffers most, I think, is in its realization. As with “The Invisible Enemy,” Baker and Martin have ideas that stretch even the most generous BBC budget. And at this point in the show’s history, the budget was anything but generous–especially given that this is the penultimate story in the season, and so much of the money had already been spent or allocated. To help cut costs, the production team decided to do something very experimental, and unheard of until that time: use Color Separation Overlay (“green screen”) for over a quarter of the entire story. This way, they wouldn’t have to build sets for certain scenes, instead using scale models of the sets upon which the actors would be superimposed.

Back in 1978, this was extremely risky. Everything was analog, with cameras physically linked to ensure co-ordination, and recording direct to videotape without the modern luxury of post-production computer clean-up. With this in mind, it’s quite an achievement for its time, and credit must be given to the technicians who pulled it off, as well as the actors who do a great job playing against blank walls. However, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, by today’s standards, it’s shy enough of believable to be distracting. There’s one scene in particular where the Doctor, Leela, and Idas float down a gravity lift. They achieve the effect with the actors standing on boxes which are hidden by the CSO. Did they not have wires and harnesses available? Would that have been too expensive? It would have been a lot more credible if they had been hanging rather than standing. As it is, it’s hard for the actors to not look like they are standing on something solid.

But it’s not just the CSO. The props don’t look as slick as one might prefer, and there’s an overall feeling of, well, shabbiness to it. And those tall helmets? And the googly-eyed robot Seers? Even some of the acting by the extras leaves a bit to be desired. Leela would have died in one corridor scene where her gun gives out. Thankfully, the guard chasing her forgot what his weapon was for when he was standing directly in front of her!

As I said, “Underworld” is not a bad story, and certainly watchable. However, I would consider it more a curiosity than must-see. Unless you’re a die-hard Whovian, or a completest, feel free to skip it.