Category Archives: Doctor Who

Who Review: Enlightenment

As our intrepid travelers in time and space wend their way through the universe, the TARDIS is affected by a sudden power surge. It seems the White Guardian is trying to make contact. Risking an overload of the TARDIS circuits, the Doctor boosts power in an attempt to stabilize contact with the Guardian. But all he gets are some coordinates, and a vague warning about danger and death, interrupted by a visit from the Black Guardian who tells the Doctor he’s doomed, then they both vanish. When the TARDIS lands, the Doctor and Turlough leave to investigate, while Tegan remains on board in case the White Guardian should attempt another contact. He does, and this time the message for the Doctor is “winner takes all.” Tegan leaves the TARDIS to tell the Doctor, and finds herself captured. The TARDIS has landed in what appears to be the hold of an Edwardian sailing vessel. The crew seem fairly cheerful and welcome the Doctor and Turlough. But there’s something up with the officers. One has taken a shine to Tegan in an odd, detached kind of way. Indeed, there’s something not quite right with the whole setup. As the TARDIS crew soon discovers, this Edwardian yacht is actually a ship–a space ship. And its crew are not from Earth, but are Eternals, using people from Earth in their game–a space race to Enlightenment, in which winner takes all. But at what cost to the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough?

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 finale of the “Black Guardian Trilogy” is probably the strongest of the three stories. Written by first-time Who writer, Barbara Clegg, who is also the first female Who writer (and probably one of the few women writing sci-fi for television in the early 80s), “Enlightenment” takes the TARDIS crew aboard an Edwardian sailing vessel that turns out to be a space ship styled like an Edwardian sailing vessel, crewed by Edwardian sailors, plucked from Earth and doomed to live and die on that vessel. The officers are “Eternals,” beings that live outside of time, who get their kicks playing with “Ephemerals,” like Edwardian sailors, and the TARDIS crew. As the story progresses it becomes clear that for all the power of these Eternals, their ability to manipulate reality, and read the minds of Ephemerals as if their thoughts were a Twitter feed, they have no real life of their own. They don’t know excitement, love, passion, joy, and have no imagination. So, while they seem to be superior beings, they, in fact, depend on Ephemerals to take the boredom out of their eternal existence. They need the Ephemerals far more than the Ephemerals need them.

And then there’s Marriner, an Eternal who has a creepy fascination with Tegan that becomes sort-of sweet but still a bit creepy. Unlike his fellow Eternals, he grows to care for her, and miss her when she’s not around. It’s not love–he doesn’t know what love is–but an enjoyment of her company, her energy, and her lively mind. It’s hard to avoid comparing his treatment of Tegan like a dog owner with his beloved pet, but it does seem a little more than that. He does seem to respect the fact that she’s a sentient creature with a mind of her own–which is one of the things he enjoys about her.

In short, Barbara Clegg has given us some interesting characters that have depth and nuance, which doesn’t always happen on Doctor Who. As much as we may want to like Marriner, he’s still an Eternal, and still treats the death of Ephemerals as of no consequence.

The story of the ship race for Enlightenment, which means so much to everyone involved, but is, in fact, a mere distraction for the Ephemerals, is a good idea that works. And Wrack’s plot to cheat through special crystals she gives as gifts to her competitors that turn out to be focal points for a devastating power source she transmits to them, is not too far-fetched for Who. And blowing up her rivals nearly wins for her, except the Doctor catches on to her plan and saves the day for their ship.

Unlike the previous two installments of the trilogy, the Black Guardian plot is actually relevant to the main story. Both “Mawdryn Undead” and “Terminus” could stand alone apart from the Black Guardian’s involvement. But here, the Black Guardian is the one behind Wrack and her schemes, almost delivering Turlough into her hands for his failure to kill the Doctor.

The performances are, on the whole, good, especially the Ephemerals on the Edwardian ship. However, the pirate ship is a little too pantomime–especially Leee John, who plays first mate to Lynda Baron’s captain. They both go a little over the top, at least for me, making it too much like a stage performance as opposed to being villainous bad guys.

The effects are pretty good for the time. In fact, the DVD comes with a special “director’s cut” movie-length version of the story, where the four parts have been pasted together, and new CGI effects added. In honesty, I think the original effects look as good, if not better.

At the end, Turlough accidentally outwits the Black Guardian, severing their contract. Turlough is free, though the Black Guardian might return. Someday. All Turlough wants to do is return to his home planet. Knowing the TARDIS, however, that might be easier said than done!

To sum up, “Enlightenment” is not must-see Who, but very good nonetheless, at least in terms of story and character. The acting is a bit hit-and-miss, but it’s still an enjoyable adventure. Definitely for the die-hard Whovian, and of interest to the casual viewer.

Who Review: Terminus

Under the direction of the Black Guardian, Turlough tries to sabotage the TARDIS. Tegan nearly catches him when she comes to take him to his room–Adric’s old room. She leaves him to visit Nyssa who is busy with test tubes in her room, when an instability field opens up threatening to swallow her. The TARDIS’s emergency protocols kick in and they materialize on a space ship. Nyssa walks through, and when things stabilize, the Doctor goes off to find her. Things start to go downhill from there. The TARDIS crew discover the ship is full of Lazars, people infected with the deadly Lazar’s disease, on their way to Terminus, a space station serving as a sort of leper colony. It’s said that the people on Terminus are working on a cure, but so far no-one has returned alive. Then the Doctor and Nyssa are caught by a couple of raiders, the advance party of a raiding team that promptly abandons them. And then Nyssa falls ill, and is carted away with the other Lazars to join their fate. Is this the end of the line for Nyssa?

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

“Terminus” continues the story arc began with the previous story in which new companion Turlough, under pressure from the Black Guardian, has to kill the Doctor. However, the more Turlough spends time with his victim and the TARDIS crew, the harder it is for him to complete his task. Not only is it nearly impossible to get the Doctor alone somewhere where he can bump him off, but he’s discovering that the Black Guardian’s description of the Doctor as the most evil being in the universe is not entirely accurate. But Turlough has no choice, since the Black Guardian promised him passage to his home planet if he is successful, and a painful death if he fails.

Unlike the previous story, “Mawdryn Undead,” the Black Guardian arc doesn’t interact with the main plot of “Terminus.” Certainly, at one or two points the Guardian gives Turlough some tips, but he is in no way manipulating events to help Turlough complete his task. The Guardian simply prods and pokes him into action, leaving it up to the boy to figure out how to get the job done. And yet very quickly, Turlough gets caught up in the story, with only a few moments here and there to have a quick chat with the glowing crystal.

The opening TARDIS scene has Turlough pleading with the Black Guardian when Tegan comes along. Turlough claims he was singing to himself, but Tegan remains suspicious of the newcomer. She shows him to Adric’s room, which will now be his. As a Twentieth Anniversary gift to the fans, the room is full of memorabilia from the previous season, including a Kinda helix necklace and the mask of the robot from “The Visitation.” When Tegan catches up with Nyssa in her room, she is experimenting with test tubes, getting back to her science roots from when she was on Traken. Not only does this serve as a reminder to viewers of Nyssa’s background, but it’s a plot point that will become important later.

Inevitably with three companions, the TARDIS crew gets separated fairly soon into the story. The Doctor goes off in pursuit of Nyssa, while Turlough and Tegan are teamed together. This was no doubt deliberate given their argument at the beginning. You might think that after all they go through, crawling around in vents and nearly getting sterilized, Tegan might begin to warm to Turlough. But any chance of that disappears when Turlough bolts for the TARDIS as soon as he makes a way back. I suppose this is a shame, but I don’t think Tegan is ever supposed to really trust Turlough, which makes for an unusual vibe on the TARDIS.

I thought it interesting the way the Turlough-Tegan plot intersects with the Doctor’s plot. Turlough, following a suggestion from the Black Guardian for making a way back to the TARDIS, inadvertently triggers a computer sequence that will result in the ship jettisoning unstable fuel. This will, in turn, trigger a “big bang” that could destroy the universe. The Doctor manages to prevent the explosion, completely oblivious to the fact that it was Turlough who was behind it. And he will never know, because Turlough is oblivious to the fact that his actions caused this emergency situation.

The effects on “Terminus” are pretty standard for BBC sci-fi drama at this time. Not bad, but not stunning, either. The Garn, a large dog-like creature, is not the disaster it could have been, though it clearly needs some CGI ear twitching, and a bit of realism around the mouth. The other costumes are not exceptional, and the guards’ armor seems a bit impractical. Probably the most eye-opening costume is Nyssa’s, since she loses much of her clothing (at least as much as is appropriate for 1983 family viewing). Apparently, this was Sarah Sutton’s idea, responding to complaints that Nyssa was too well dressed–no doubt from some of the show’s older male viewers.

The big upset of the story is the fact that we say goodbye to Nyssa. Not only was this an upset to Sarah Sutton, who had not asked to leave, and to Peter Davison, who thought Nyssa was a great companion and enjoyed working with Sarah. There were fans who didn’t think this was a good idea–me being one of them! Not only was Sarah Sutton excellent in the role, reminiscent of Elisabeth Sladen (“Sarah Jane Smith”) in many ways, but her character had depth and dimensions that had barely been touched on. After all, she’s a young scientist whose father was taken over by the Master, and the Master then caused her home planet to be consumed by entropy. Her race instinct is toward peace, thinking the best of people, and being hopeful about life and circumstances. And yet she nurses a deep sadness at having lost so much. The Doctor gives her an anchor, the TARDIS a home, and Tegan a friend. The tears she cries in her parting scene are genuine. Sarah cried those tears for real. And I think Nyssa did too. Which, of course, makes this one of the most powerful and moving companion departure scenes in Classic Who history.

“Terminus” is not a bad story. Not one of the best, but not bad. If you watch the trilogy (“Mawdryn Undead,” “Terminus,” and “Enlightenment”), most likely this will be the weakest, but the performances are good (again, Sarah Sutton is excellent), and the plot doesn’t drag. Certainly not “must-see” Who, but not a waste of time either.

Who Review: Mawdryn Undead

It’s 1983, and Brandon Public School boy Turlough is causing trouble again, this time crashing the car belonging to their maths teacher, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. As he lies unconscious, Turlough is visited by the Black Guardian who commissions him to kill the Doctor. Turlough refuses–all he wants is to go home. Earth is not his native planet, and the life of a British schoolboy is no life for one with his intelligence. The Black Guardian makes an offer he can’t refuse: kill the Doctor, and he’ll return Turlough to his home planet. Meanwhile, the TARDIS is caught in the warp ellipse of a ship. To avoid crashing, the Doctor materializes on board. The TARDIS crew now find themselves on what appears to be an abandoned starliner–except it isn’t abandoned. Turlough is there. The Doctor will soon learn that the liner has a crew, scientists who have been experimenting on themselves to discover the Time Lord secret of regeneration. However, all they’ve managed to do is mutilate themselves into a painful but eternal existence. They want death, but the only way to achieve it is for the Doctor to give up his remaining regenerations…

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!

“Mawdryn Undead” is the first in what has come to be known as the “Black Guardian Trilogy,” since they all have the common story thread of the Black Guardian trying to kill the Doctor. Continuing the twentieth anniversary theme of returning characters, the Black Guardian was last seen in the Fourth Doctor’s “Key to Time” season in 1978, wherein the Doctor prevented him laying his hands on that powerful key. Clearly still bearing a grudge, the raven-hatted baddie is after deadly revenge, using a surrogate because he “mustn’t be seen to be involved.” That surrogate is a school boy named Turlough. Why Turlough? Perhaps because he was already a rotten egg, so he might be more amenable to the idea of murder? His attempts to resist give the impression he’s not all that bad, certainly not wanting the Doctor’s blood on his hands. Did the Guardian already know of Turlough’s compelling desire to return to his home planet? I’m not so sure. For much of the story, the Guardian appears to be improvising, as much as he accuses Turlough of not sticking to “the plan.” Whatever his reasons, the Guardian chooses Turlough, and exerts much mental persuasion to get him to comply to his wishes.

It’s not a bad story, though it comes off a bit fan-boyish, as if writer Peter Grimwade is deliberately trying to check all the True-Whovian boxes to keep the die-hards happy. Not only do you have the return of the Black Guardian and the Brigadier, but you have mention of old companions, flash-backs to previous stories, and even the Doctor using the line “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”–an old favorite of the Third Doctor. The central theme of the serial is regeneration, and the fact that Mawdryn and his buddies had tried to become Time Lords through experimenting with the regeneration process. Now they are condemned to live forever in mutated form, and only a Time Lord’s regenerative power will give them sufficient energy to die. The Doctor reiterates the fact (since 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin” anyway) that a Time Lord can only regenerate twelve times. But he also states plainly for the first time that he has regenerated four times. As viewers, we regarded Davison’s incarnation as the Fifth Doctor, but the character himself only ever refers himself as “The Doctor,” leaving some ambiguity as to whether there might have been incarnations prior to the one we first encountered, William Hartnell. This story sets the record straight: Hartnell was the First, regardless of what previous stories might have suggested. Again, this would be the cause of much excitement and debate amongst Whovians, which is just the sort of thing you want in a celebratory year.

It does raise the existential question: Is being a Time Lord simply about being able to regenerate? Is regeneration the sole defining trait of a Time Lord, or simply one of many traits (including having two hearts, and a respiratory bypass system)? Does losing one’s ability to regenerate reduce a Time Lord to just another Gallifreyan, as the episode three cliffhanger would suggest? Before “The Invasion of Time” (1978), the only inhabitants of Gallifrey we had ever seen were the Time Lords. In that story, the Doctor’s companion Leela hooked up with a band of Gallifreyans who lived in the forests and wilderness surrounding the citadel. We don’t know much about these Gallifreyans other than, for some reason, they were not Time Lords. So there is a distinction. But could one become a Time Lord, and could one really cease to be a Time Lord? The show seems to leave both possibilities open. I’m not so sure, however, that merely losing the ability to regenerate makes all the difference. There seems to be much more to being a Time Lord, both physiologically, and in terms of education and social status.

It’s nice to see the Brigadier back, teaching mathematics at a public school (note for non-Brits, a British public school is actually a private school–think Eton, or Hogwarts). And not just one Brigadier, but two! One from 1977 and one from 1983. I thought the make-up for the younger Brig was quite well done. I can quite believe he’s six years younger.

As for Brandon Public School… I actually attended a British public school for seven years. A boarding school, no less, just like Brandon (though I didn’t board; I was a “day” pupil). From my experience, Brandon Public School is nothing like the average British public school in the early 1980s. It’s more of a parody of what a British public school would have been like in the 1920s! (See the Tenth Doctor two-part story “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood” for an idea of what that was like.) Surely someone on the production could have set them straight? I mean, the boater hats and “jolly wot-ho!” dialog? That was not the school I attended, I can tell you!

I’m a little confused with what exactly the Black Guardian’s plan is with regard to how Turlough should dispose of the Doctor. From the outset, it seems as if he’s given the young lad carte blanche to drop a rock on his head, or whatever it takes. But then as the Doctor gets tangled in the Mawdryn storyline, leading to where he will have to sacrifice his lives to save his friends, the Guardian acts as if that was his plan all along, and chides Turlough for not following it. Turlough might have been more cooperative if he’d been told about the ship, and what the mutated people wanted. Frankly, I think the Black Guardian’s totally winging this, and blaming Turlough when things go pear-shaped.

The story ends with the Brigadier saving the day. When he asks Nyssa what’s been going on, Nyssa replies, “The Doctor will explain later,” and a thousand Whovians chuckle (“I’ll explain later” was something the Doctor frequently said to his companions). And Turlough officially joins the TARDIS crew, though he is still under orders from the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor. It seems clear the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan don’t suspect anything seriously amiss with Turlough, though they do seem guarded. And rightly so!

What do we make of Turlough as a companion? He’s very different from previous companions, which is a good thing. I like that he has a bit of a dark edge to him, even beyond his collusion with the Black Guardian. After all, he went joyriding in the Brig’s car before the Guardian ever got to him. If he’s going to work, Nyssa and Tegan are going to have to warm to him, and that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. Maybe as their adventures progress…

“Mawdryn Undead” is interesting, and as a Who celebration is fun. The story is a little convoluted, but not too much of a stretch if you pay attention. Certainly of interest, though not compelling. Worth watching, but not at all costs.

Who Review: Twice Upon a Time

The First Doctor, wearied by his adventures, complains that his body is wearing thin. Yet, while he knows he is about to regenerate, he doesn’t want to change. Instead, he ventures out into the harsh cold of the South Pole, where he comes upon a strange man in front of a Police Box very much like his own…

Fresh from his adventure with the Mondasian Cybermen (see “The Doctor Falls”), the Twelfth Doctor, mortally wounded, is also resisting regeneration. He too wants to continue on in this body and isn’t ready for change. A familiar figure approaches, also claiming to be the Doctor. Suddenly, time stands still, and the two Doctors are joined by a World War I officer, confused by his sudden dislocation. The three of them, along with Twelve’s TARDIS, are kidnapped and taken on board a spacecraft. When Bill steps out to greet them, the Doctor knows something is seriously wrong. Bill was converted into a Cyberman, and is now dead. How can she be there? And who is the strange glass woman piloting the ship?

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!

In my review for the previous story, “The Doctor Falls,” I hoped that the Christmas story would be more than “just Twelve and One chatting about life for an hour.” I wasn’t exactly disappointed, but close to it. Perhaps the best way to understand “Twice Upon a Time” is to remember three things: First, it’s a Christmas Doctor Who, and the tradition is that these stories are generally lighter and feel-good. Second, it’s Steven Moffatt’s farewell story, not just Peter Capaldi’s. Finally, Moff was not planning to write a Christmas episode. His original plan was to have Capaldi regenerate at the end of Season 10, and that would be his last story. However, the new show-runner, Chris Chibnall was not planning to write a Christmas episode. Rather than give up the coveted Christmas Day slot, Moffatt came up with a way to hold off Twelve’s regeneration and wrote a Christmas episode around it. I think this explains a lot.

It explains why there is no bad guy, though I suppose you could say the bad guy in the story is death. Twelve and One are trying to avoid it, and the glass people are in the business of capturing the memories of the dying so they can live on while their mortal bodies perish. No-one wants to die. The thing that eventually convinces Twelve to regenerate is the fact that if he doesn’t regenerate, he will eventually die for good, and the universe can’t handle that. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

It also explains why we have Bill, Nardole, and even Clara coming back. At the end of Season Nine’s “Hell Bent,” the Doctor’s memory of Clara had been erased. But now the glass people give it back to him so he can see her once more before he regenerates. There seems to be a tradition now, begun with the Tenth Doctor, of the regenerating Doctor seeing all his old companions (this only happened one time in the classic series, when Four changed into Five, and that was more out of respect for Four’s unusually long tenure). And these glass people who can conjure up the dead from their memories are the perfect vehicle for bringing back the Doctor’s companions who are no longer a part of his life, after he had moved on. There was no purpose to this. Let dead companions lie, I say.

It also explains the Doctor’s pre-regeneration speech. This wasn’t the Twelfth Doctor letting go of being the Doctor. It was Steven Moffatt letting go of Doctor Who. And as poignant as it might be for Moff, it came across to me as self indulgent.

What we end up with is an episode that is pure padding. Yes, it was fun to have One and Twelve in a story together. The effects were superb, and the acting top-notch. But it was exactly what Moff planned it to be: a means to delay the regeneration so we can have an episode of Doctor Who on Christmas Day.

Chris Chibnall wrote the post-regeneration scene, including Thirteen’s first word, so he could give us a taste of where his first season as show-runner is going. We have deep symbolism with Twelve’s ring falling from Thirteen’s finger, which is something that happened when One regenerated into Two. That very first regeneration was a landmark event for the show, as is Twelve’s regeneration into the first female Doctor. I think the ring falling was supposed to underscore that parallel. I’m not exactly sure why the TARDIS has such a bad reaction to this regeneration, but it’s possible the reason has more to do with Moff wanting to give Chibnall a clean slate to work with (and possibly a re-design of the TARDIS?), just as Russell T. Davies gave Moff a burning TARDIS at the end of Ten’s time. Eleven (and Moff) started his first episode holding on to the TARDIS for dear life. Thirteen finds herself ejected completely, falling to the ground. “To Be Continued…” indeed!

Let’s come back to some of the philosophical points of the episode. First, this whole idea of the Doctor being a great hero without whom the universe will cease to exist. Thinking about Moffat’s time as show-runner, this is perhaps the most annoying aspect of his presentation of the Doctor. For the past seven years, Moff has given us an incarnation of the fan’s Doctor. Whovians love the Doctor. We think he’s cool. He’s the On-coming Storm. He is the one person all his foes should fear. But throughout the show’s history, the Doctor has never thought that of himself. Maybe a few times he hints at being “more than just a Time Lord” (as the Seventh Doctor put it), but ,on the whole, he sees himself as a wandering traveler trying to help out where he can. The last time he got notions of grandeur was at the end of Ten’s run, and realizing it caused him to sacrifice his Tenth persona to save the life of an old man, Wilf Mott. Because it’s people like Wilf that are important, not the Doctor. I think one of the reasons I like the Second Doctor so much is the fact he was happy for people to think him a bumbling idiot, because they would always end up underestimating him. The Fourth Doctor had a similar quality.

Finally, I can’t let this idea of people being the sum of their memories pass without comment. One simply has to ask: does this mean people with dementia, or Alzheimer’s, are lesser people? Is Moffat suggesting that our value as people is tied to our ability to remember? As a Christian, I see this as yet another humanistic fumbling attempt to explain what it means to be human, and why people are important and valuable. Need I point out how fallible the human memory is? I may remember some events vividly, but I don’t remember all events infallibly. And my memory of events is subject to the influence of time, and the influence of other people. And what about newborn babies, whose memories are only just beginning to form? As I age, my memory will fail, and I will start to forget things. Do I become less of a person as I get older? Biblical teaching is that every person has identity and value not because of what they remember, but because they are each created in the image of God. And we are image-bearers of God from womb to tomb, no matter how well we remember anything!

In short, while this is a fun episode for Whovians, aside from the regeneration at the end, there is nothing in this story that is Must-See. In fact, you can skip this and start watching Season Eleven having missed nothing. Given how much I enjoyed Season Ten, I had hoped for a more substantial send-off for Twelve. Perhaps a better plan would have been to regenerate Twelve at the end of Season Ten, and then to give us a special one-off Eighth Doctor story for Christmas. Oh well…

What did YOU think? It’s your turn to share your thoughts…

Who Review: Snakedance

The TARDIS is off-course, and the only explanation is whoever read the destination coordinates made a mistake. Or did they? After all, it was Tegan who acted as navigator, and she is trying to take a nap, though her sleep is interrupted by bad dreams. The Mara is rearing its serpentine head again, and its dormant influence over Tegan is reawakening. It caused her to give the Doctor coordinates to Manussa, which was formerly occupied by the Sumaran Empire. It is there that the cult of Snakedancers still celebrate the Mara’s banishment, and conduct rituals to keep the Mara away. It is also the home of the “Great Mind’s Eye” crystal, which, when combined with smaller “Little Mind’s Eye” crystals can channel the mental power of the wearers to create matter. Meanwhile, on Manussa, the ruling Federator’s indolent son, Lon, has taken a sudden fascination with the legends of the Mara, and its prophesied return. But Ambril, an archaeologist and expert on the Sumaran period, is convinced the legends of the Mara are just that–legends. When the TARDIS crew arrive on Manussa, despite the Doctor’s best efforts, Tegan is overpowered by the Mara, and leaves to find the Great Mind’s Eye. The Doctor’s attempts to warn Ambril fall on deaf ears. Somehow, the Doctor and Nyssa must find a way to warn the Manussans and save Tegan, before the Mara returns and consumes them all…

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 Doctor Who’s twentieth year, producer John Nathan-Turner wanted each story to bring back an old friend or foe (or both). The first story, “Arc of Infinity” saw the return of Omega, last seen in the Third Doctor story, “The Three Doctors” in 1973. For “Snakedance,” the production team didn’t reach very far back at all. The returning character is the Mara, last seen the previous season in “Kinda.” In that story, the Mara had taken over Tegan, and in the end was banished to the dark places. Banished doesn’t mean destroyed, and now its back with plans to stick around.

“Snakedance” was written by Christopher Bailey, who had written “Kinda.” He drew from the same pool of essentially Buddhist philosophy, but I think in “Snakedance” he did a better job making the ideas understandable to the layman. I particularly appreciated the lack of “Do you not see?” and “Do you not understand?” remarks that made “Kinda” come off as patronizing. Otherwise “Kinda” had some great acting, and was a good story. “Snakedance” also has some great acting (including a young Martin Clunes in one of his first lead roles), and is a good story.

Nyssa gets a change of clothes at last, sporting an 80s-style stripey skirt, red knee-length shorts, and blue-and-white wide-collar blouse. Martin Clunes is not quite so fortunate. His costume for the snake dance consists of a silky white tunic adorned with blue clouds, and a golden, sunshine headdress. I’m sure the symbolism is very meaningful.

I’m guessing the effects department learned some painful lessons from “Kinda.” The big snake at the end was a complete disaster (the CGI re-make on the DVD is excellent, which is a surprise–not all the CGI make-overs are that good). In “Snakedance” most of the snakes you see are fake, but they are small and used effectively. There is a big snake at the end, but it does look a bit more credible. Its death scene, with the strawberry and vanilla melted ice cream oozing from him, was a bit of a let-down. Though it would have catered many Manussan parties.

One particular oddity (at least to me) was the inclusion of the Punch and Judy show. The classic British puppet act involving acts of marital violence between Punch the Sociopath and his pan-wielding spouse was given a connection to the story by replacing the traditional crocodile character with a snake. But how on earth did Punch and Judy get to Manussa? Is there a Manussan legend of a traveling entertainer from Britain whose ship somehow ended up on Manussa, and, in exchange for the people’s hospitality, he gave them the gift of homicidal British vaudeville? Surely it would have been more appropriate to invent some kind of Mara-related entertainment that made sense to the Manussan culture. But no…

Complaints aside, the script is very good. Possibly my favorite part is when Ambril is showing the Doctor how ridiculously primitive the Sumarans were by holding up a headdress that is supposed to represent the six faces of delusion. “But look!” Ambril says, “There are only five faces.” To which the Doctor suggests Ambril try the headdress on. “Now count the faces.” Yes–the sixth face of delusion is the wearer’s own. A classic look of realization and foolishness on Ambril’s part.

In “Kinda,” we knew who was under the control of the Mara by the snake on the arm, and the pink coloring in the mouth (achieved no doubt by chewing one of those tablets they used to give us in school that colors the plaque on your teeth). This time, not only do we have the snake on the arm, but the victims face turns red. An interesting variation. I wonder if this was because the tablets tasted nasty?

At the end of “Snakedance,” the Mara has been destroyed, not just banished, but Tegan is shaken by the experience. The final scene, where Tegan is crying and the Doctor comforts her is not common in Classic Who. Recognizing that the audience mainly consisted of children, the producers didn’t often linger on the negative emotional consequences of the story. I think this is good, and the scene is well played.

“Snakedance” isn’t must-see Who, but it is worth watching. Despite their failings, this, and “Kinda” are good, thoughtful stories, with some excellent performances. And if you’ve loved Martin Clunes in anything else he has done since (e.g., “Doc Martin”), you ought to watch “Snakedance.”

Who Review: Arc of Infinity

In Amsterdam, a couple of tourists spend the night in a crypt. During the night, one of them is hypnotized by a strange creature who employs him carry equipment. This alien being is composed of anti-matter, and is using the city as a power source for an elaborate plan, a plan that involves the Doctor. Meanwhile, on Gallifrey, the alien has an accomplice steal the Doctor’s bio-scan. This creature appears to have knowledge of the Time Lords, and wishes to live in the world of matter again by bonding with a Time Lord, namely, the Doctor. On the TARDIS, the Doctor and Nyssa are hit by an energy bolt which attacks the Doctor. He recovers, but is anxious to locate the source of the attack. The High Council of Gallifrey are also concerned about this anti-matter creature, and it’s plan to bond with the Doctor. Should this creature manage to cross into the world of matter, the effect would be devastating. They recall the TARDIS, and both the Doctor and Nyssa are pleased to cooperate with the investigation, fully aware of the danger to the universe posed by this creature. However, while the Doctor wants to find the anti-matter being, discover who he is, and prevent him completing the bond, the Council has another solution in mind: kill the Doctor…

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!

“Arc of Infinity” was the first story of Doctor Who’s twentieth season, broadcast in January of 1983. Part of producer John Nathan-Turner’s plan for the show’s twenty year anniversary was to bring back an old character in each episode. For this story, the returning character was [SPOILER] Omega, the renegade Time Lord last seen in the tenth anniversary special, “The Three Doctors,” featuring Doctors one through three. Ten years on and the poor guy’s still stuck in anti-matter world, longing to join the rest of his kind, and willing to go to dangerous lengths to make that happen.

The Amsterdam location shoot apparently had nothing to do with the story. Nathan-Turner wanted to film the story on location, chose Amsterdam, and then told the writer, Johnny Byrne, to make it fit. Always up for a challenge, Byrne used the fact that Holland is below sea-level to contrive a plan by Omega use a fusion booster from Gallifrey to power his bond with the Doctor. This booster draws energy from hydrogen atoms, which are in plentiful supply in Amsterdam.

The “Arc of Infinity” in the story is a curve between dimensions whose properties shield anti-matter, enabling Omega to appear in the matter world, though only in one location. He later uses the Arc to take control of the Matrix on Gallifrey.

This isn’t a bad story, with some good ideas, and a workable plot. Johnny Byrne had previously written “The Keeper of Traken,” the story that introduced Nyssa, so no doubt he was pleased to get the chance to develop her character a little more, especially since she’s the sole companion for this story. However, I think it suffers from some dodgy effects and costumes, and what seems to me a lack of real drama. There are some potentially gripping scenes that just don’t come off, either because the effects are a bit blah, or the acting is, frankly, a bit blah. At the end of part one we have a great cliffhanger with Commander Maxil, played by future Sixth Doctor Colin Baker, shooting the Doctor. First, Colin Baker doesn’t look at all comfortable with his weapon, which makes the scene a bit awkward. Then he shoots, the Doctor collapses, and we see him on the floor. The part two cliffhanger, where the Doctor is apparently executed, had a lot more going for it, with all the smoke, Nyssa’s pleading and tears. Then we get to part three, and Omega has taken over the Matrix. That’s a big deal! And our cliffhanger is the Doctor’s somewhat plaintive, “We’re too late,” and a shot of Omega floating across the criss-cross Matrix pattern on the screen. Again, a good cliffhanger idea, but lacking punch.

Sarah Sutton has an opportunity to shine here, and she does. I’ve said in previous reviews how she plays Nyssa with such conviction, and this is no exception, taking full advantage of the scenes given to her to put her all into this character. Aside from some of the other leading characters, however, the performances seem a bit laid back for the supposed danger the universe is in thanks to Omega.

And then there’s the chase scenes. It’s hard to determine whether the lengthy excursion through the streets of Amsterdam is truly relevant to the plot, or whether they are padding for time, or if John Nathan-Turner wanted to make the most of his travel budget. Probably all three to some extent. Yes, we need time for Omega to gradually deteriorate, but it does seem a little protracted beyond what is needed for the story. At least I think so.

At the end, Nyssa laments Tegan having to return home to her job. Tegan, beaming with delight, informs her she got the sack (a phrase that, surprisingly, Nyssa understands). Everyone is overjoyed that Tegan is now one of Britain’s many unemployed… well, okay, they’re happy because this implies she is free to rejoin the TARDIS crew. When Tegan makes explicit her intentions (“So you’re stuck with me!”), Nyssa is delighted. The Doctor says, “So it seems,” and gives a rather bemused smile. I wonder, if this was the modern series, would the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa have been like the Tenth Doctor and Rose? He appears to look on Tegan as an awkward third party. Peter Davison has made no secret of the fact that he thought Nyssa was the best of his companions, and (no offense to the others) he would have liked to have seen more Doctor-Nyssa stories. Perhaps his own feelings are showing in that scene.

To sum up, “Arc of Infinity” is good, but not great, thanks to the execution more than the writing. The average viewer won’t be bored by it, and there are far worse stories, but aside from finding out what happened to Tegan, it’s totally non-essential.

Who Review: Time-Flight

Something strange is going on at Heathrow airport. It seems one of their Concorde’s has gone missing, disappearing from radar just as it was coming in to land. Meanwhile, on board the TARDIS, the Doctor offers to take his companions back to the Great Exhibition as way to help them move on from the loss of Adric. But something sends the TARDIS off course and they end up inside one of the terminals at Heathrow. When security comes to investigate, the Doctor appeals to UNIT, and the trio are taken to the airport authorities who have been instructed by UNIT to get the Doctor’s help to find their missing aircraft. The Doctor suspects some kind of temporal anomaly, which would explain why the TARDIS was affected. His solution is fly another Concorde along the same flight path as the previous one, and use the TARDIS on board to track where, and when, the flight is going. As the Doctor predicted, they disappear from radar, but they seem to land back at Heathrow. But what they see is an illusion. The truth is that they have traveled back in time some 140 million years. Their perception is being manipulated by a conjurer named Kalid, who is not at all what he appears to be, and who will go to extreme lengths to achieve his true intentions…

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!

“Time-Flight” follows directly on from the events of the previous story, “Earthshock,” most notably, the death of companion Adric. Still in shock, the Doctor’s suggestion of a trip to the Great Exhibition seems a little heartless. After all, Tegan and Nyssa are still grieving the loss of their friend. It would be consistent of the Doctor’s character to be insensitive to human grieving since he’s not human. But one of the Fifth Doctor’s personality traits is a greater sensitivity to suffering than his previous incarnation, so it is somewhat out-of-character. Interestingly, when Tegan tells the Doctor to travel back in time and rescue Adric, the Doctor insists that he can’t change what’s happened, and they should never ask him to do something like that again. It appears the concept of a “fixed point in time” that can’t be changed existed in the Classic Series! It’s all moot anyway, since the crew wind up in Heathrow, and are soon caught up in the mystery of the missing Concorde.

With the help of Captain Stapely and the second Concorde crew, the Doctor is able to detect where and when the aircraft has traveled. When they load the TARDIS horizontally into the Concorde’s cargo hold, the Doctor flips a switch on the console so the TARDIS interior is verticle. Nyssa says she wishes they’d known about that on Castrovalva–one of a number of references to previous stories in this episode.

Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor, considered “Time-Flight” a good story let down by bad effects. In all honesty, I think that’s generous. It’s not a terrible story, but it lacks the dramatic scale of previous adventures. It turns out that Kalid is actually the Master, who escaped from Castrovalva but at the cost of his TARDIS which suffered damage along the way. He is now stranded on prehistoric Earth, getting there around the same time as the Xeraphin. The Xeraphin had attempted to escape a battle situation and ended up crashing on Earth. The Master’s arrival caused the ethereal and powerful Xeraphin to split between good and evil, the evil side aligning with the Master, the good side helping the Doctor. The Master wants to use the power of the Xeraphin to get his TARDIS going again so he can escape. This power would be dangerous in the hands of the Master, so the Doctor must try to stop him.

While the Xeraphin do engage with the plot, ultimately the story is all about the Master trying to escape prehistoric Earth. He’s not trying to take over the world, or the universe–he just wants to get away. Granted, getting away with a powerful energy source in his TARDIS is a potential recipe for disaster, but I don’t get the feeling the Master’s that concerned. For him, the Xeraphin power (which is, actually, a gestalt of all the Xeraphin) is simply a means to getting his TARDIS away from Earth. When the Doctor proclaims, “The Master has defeated me,” at the episode three cliffhanger, I’m not convinced: the Doctor never gives up that easily. And exactly how did the Master “defeat” the Doctor? He didn’t try to kill the Doctor; the Doctor just failed to stop the Master at that point in the story.

The special effects are not brilliant. At best they are passable, but never outstanding. And while the appearances of Adric, the Melkur from “The Keeper of Traken” (Nyssa’s first story), and a Terileptil from “The Visitation” are a nice surprise, I can’t help feeling they’re a bit contrived. It’s the last story in the season, so they’re reminding us of past story elements. But Nyssa and Tegan aren’t taken in by these psychological manifestations, which just underscores the fact that they’re there more for the audience than the story.

The best cliffhanger is at the end of episode four where the Doctor and Nyssa accidentally leave Tegan behind at Heathrow. To those watching at the time, it looks like this is Tegan’s last story, which would be unusual since there was no announcement that Janet Fielding was leaving the show. You can be sure people tuned in for season twenty to find out if Tegan is coming back.

I think the real winners of this story are the British Airways pilots. They come across as level-headed, resourceful, and able to quickly adapt to strange concepts and evolving situations. No wonder Heathrow was so willing to let the BBC film there!

To sum up, I think “Time-Flight” is for the die-hard Whovian. Unless you have to know what happened to the Master, there’s nothing here for the casual viewer. Pretend the season ended with “Earthshock” and move on.

Who Review: Earthshock

A team of paleontologists and geographers comes under attack during a cave expedition on Earth. Military help arrives, but they find no traces of either the missing team members, or of their alleged assailants. When the soldiers sent into the cave to investigate start reporting missing squad members, even the military must concede there is a real threat in the caves.

Meanwhile in the TARDIS, the Doctor and Adric fall out over Adric’s desire to return home. The TARDIS lands, and the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan leave Adric to plot a way back to E-Space on the ship’s computer while they explore. They seem to have landed in a cave, and before long they find themselves having to explain their presence to a squad of soldiers looking for missing expedition team members. It soon becomes clear that the Doctor had nothing to do with their deaths when they all come under fire from deadly androids. As if this isn’t enough trouble for the Doctor, things will only get worse when he finds out who’s controlling the androids, and what they plan to do…

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!

“Earthshock” is one of the two best stories this season, and possibly the best of the two–the other being “The Visitation”–both written by Eric Saward. The story starts with an extended prologue, which was a novel feature of “The Visitation.” In this story’s five-plus minute opening scene, Saward sets up the story by introducing us to the cave explorers, the soldiers who come to their aid, and the danger they face. While it’s no longer a novelty, this device not only gives us insight into the peril the TARDIS crew will be facing, but it gives us a chance to get to know the new characters, which doesn’t always happen when the Doctor’s around stealing the limelight.

When we eventually get to the TARDIS team, the Doctor and Adric are at each other’s throats again. What starts as a conversation in Adric’s room, where he has mementos from previous adventures (the android mask from “The Visitation,” and a Kinda necklace), turns into an argument about taking Adric home, and how Adric feels unappreciated, the butt of jokes, and an outsider (cue music from Adric’s first story, “Full Circle”). I have to say, I think Adric has a point. But I’ve said more than once that the Fourth Doctor and Adric worked well together, and everything changed when the Doctor regenerated. The Doctor refuses to take Adric home, citing the difficulty of plotting negative coordinates for E-Space, and the virtual impossibility of piloting the TARDIS through a CVE again. Adric says he can do it. By the time he shows the Doctor his calculations, however, both sides have calmed down and Adric admits he doesn’t really want to leave. Its this kind of scene, building our sympathies with Adric, that makes the finale so much harder for Adric’s fans.

“Earthshock” is notable for a couple of huge surprises, and some minor ones. The first of the big surprises that the production team managed to keep secret from the public (a feat that would be impossible these days) is the return of the Cybermen. The reveal at the end of episode one is brilliantly done, and certainly delighted me when I first watched this story. How cool! And even more cool was the fact that they played little clips of the First, Second, and Fourth Doctors’ encounters with the Cybermen. Bear in mind, in 1982 Doctor Who was not available on VHS or any other medium. If it wasn’t on broadcast TV, you didn’t see it. So it had been years (and in the case of fans like me, never) since people had seen these old stories.

We get a minor surprise at the fact that veteran British comedy actress Beryl Reid is playing the freighter commander. Not only is this drama, but it’s sci-fi, both anomalies for Ms. Reid. However, she’s a consummate professional, and gives the part her all, putting in a good performance. Someone more suited to the role may have done better, but it’s testimony to the caliber of actress she is that, even though she is clearly mis-cast, she does well.

Another minor surprise, at least for me, happens when the Cybermen come on board the TARDIS, and the soldiers fire on them from the Console Room. It had been established previously (the 1976 story, “The Hand of Fear,” to be precise) that the TARDIS Console Room was in a special “state of temporal grace” such that weapons do not work there. Clearly that detail was neglected for the sake of a gunfight in the TARDIS. We also see the meek and pacifistic Fifth Doctor pick up the Cyber Leader’s gun and shoot him multiple times at point-blank range. The Doctor has not been averse to using violence when necessary, but this seemed particularly out of character for the Fifth Doctor, and a bit excessive for any Doctor.

The second major surprise is, of course, Adric’s demise. It’s accidentally heroic, caused by his determination to solve the logic puzzles that would release the freighter’s navigation system so he could steer the ship away from Earth. He could have escaped, but sudden inspiration causes him to leap out of the transporter that would take him to an escape pod, so he could try his idea. Before he gets the chance to solve the final puzzle, a dying Cyberman blasts the console. There’s nothing left for him to do but grip the badge his brother had given him before he died in “Full Circle,” and watch the Earth hurtle toward him. The episode closes with a silent credit roll over a picture of Adric’s broken gold-rimmed badge for mathematical excellence that the Doctor had used against a Cyberman. It was a powerful finale, and certainly stunned Who fandom. Even those who didn’t like Adric (and there were many of those) were shocked that they would actually kill him off. What makes his death even more tragic is that the plot made it inevitable. It was that freighter hitting Earth that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs (an event the Doctor told Tegan was “unexplained” in episode one–not any more!). If Adric had succeeded in solving the puzzles and diverting the freighter, the dinosaurs would have stayed and Earth’s history would have been dramatically altered (according to this particular theory, anyway).

I don’t find flaw with much in “Earthshock.” Most of my criticisms are to do with the sets and the costumes, but I have to temper that criticism with the acknowledgement that, as always, the production team were doing the best they could with what little money they had. Sadly, the results are soft, silver-colored Cyberman boots, and flimsy looking doors and storage containers.

The Doctor’s speech to the emotionless Cybermen about smelling a flower, watching a sunset, and eating a “well-prepared meal” is a little strange. Especially the “well-prepared meal” part. But the Doctor’s emphasis on the value of emotional experience only serves to underscore the strength of the Cyber Leader’s argument that emotions are a weakness. There’s no disputing that by threatening Tegan’s life, the Cyber Leader can control the Doctor. Their back-and-forth makes it clear that there is no reasoning with the Cybermen with regard to the value of emotions. Having never known joy, fear, delight, love, friendship, etc., they cannot appreciate the inestimable worth of such things.

To sum up, “Earthshock” is Must-See Who. Definitely a story the die-hard needs to see, but also one that the casual Whovian will enjoy. Good acting, a great script, and full of shocks and surprises (well, not so much now that you’ve read my review!)

Who Review: Black Orchid

The TARDIS materializes in 1920s England, and immediately the Doctor finds himself the guest of the Cranleighs who hope his cricketing skills will help the home team. Confused, but glad of a nice reception, the crew meet their hosts and enjoy a lovely day of cricket and cocktails, followed by a fancy dress dance. There are turned heads when the Cranleighs meet Nyssa; one of their own, Ann Talbot, is her exact likeness. Uncanny. Spooky, even. But Nyssa and Ann turn this into an opportunity for fun at the dance. However, doubles and mistaken identity turn deadly. A man is strangled to death, and the only witness, Ann Talbot, identifies the killer as a man in a mannequin costume–the one the Doctor has been given to wear. The Doctor needs to prove his innocence, and find the real killer before there are any more killings, least of all his own…

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!

Pure historicals, where there are no BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) and alien tech, used to be a mainstay of Doctor Who in the Sixties (“Marco Polo,” “The Reign of Terror,” “The Crusaders,” “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” “The Highlanders” to name a handful). However, when Terrance Dicks took over as script editor in the 1970s, the pure historical all but died out, giving preference to stories of alien interference in Earth’s past (e.g., “The Time Warrior,” “The Pyramids of Mars,” “The Masque of Mandragora”). “Black Orchid” marked the return of the pure historical, albeit for only two episodes. And it also marked the last time this format would be used in Classic Doctor Who. Clearly, audiences liked their BEMs and alien tech.

One of the criticisms leveled against “Black Orchid,” and one I think is fair, is the fact that, for most of the story, it’s like an Agatha Christie murder-mystery, and the TARDIS crew could have been anyone. They don’t bring insights or knowledge from their alien lives to bear on the story. The Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa fit right in with the period, and Adric becomes the awkward teenager. Granted, there’s not much character development you can do in two episodes, and that’s another part of the problem. Producer John Nathan-Turner’s aversion to the six-part story, which was popular in the 1970s (Tom Baker’s era had at least one six-parter per season), led him to divide the twenty-six weeks he was given for season nineteen into six four-part stories and one two-part, as opposed to five four-part stories and one six-part story. The result is a story with a lot of potential, but much that could have been developed, particularly in terms of character.

That said, I think there are commendable elements to “Black Orchid.” First, it’s a good story. The plot’s fairly solid, with a mysterious creeping man, family secrets, and a puzzle to solve with dire consequences if assumptions are allowed to go unchallenged. The Black Orchid of the title is a prize flower shown to our heroes near the beginning, which turns out to be the big clue that helps the Doctor solve the mystery. Second, it’s a period drama, and if the BBC know how to do anything, it’s period drama. This means the costumes and the sets are excellent, and totally believable for the era. Even the Doctor’s Edwardian cricket outfit doesn’t seem too out of place. The acting is, for the most part, top notch, with Sarah Sutton being given the opportunity to shine in the dual role of Nyssa and Ann Talbot. She manages to bring enough nuance to each part that the observant Whovian should be able to tell when she’s being Nyssa, and when she’s Ann.

Once again, Adric gets the short straw (see the previous three stories). He really doesn’t have much to do, and when he is doing something it’s either dancing badly (and complaining about it), or eating. The Doctor doesn’t need his help to solve the crime, and, indeed, no-one really needs him to do much of anything. So he doesn’t do much of anything. Part of this is the consequence of having three companions and only two episodes. Some are not going to have much to do. But in a way, this also helps build up to Adric’s finale in the next story. He’s the odd-one-out, distant from the Doctor, awkward with the girls, and feeling left out and surplus. This just makes the resolution of his character arc all the more heartbreaking–read my review of “Earthshock” for more about that.

I was a bit surprised at how well Sir Robert and the police constable accept the TARDIS. Sure, they are bewildered when they see the interior, but when they step out and find themselves transported from the police station to the Cranleigh’s, they don’t seem at all perturbed. I would have liked to have seen a bit more reaction from them. Also, the ending is a bit abrupt. Lady Cranleigh presents the Doctor with the “Black Orchid” book, which the Doctor says he will treasure. Close up on the book’s title, and that’s it. Sure, the book is a memento of the adventure, but, unless I’m missing something, it’s not particularly poignant. We know of George Cranleigh’s affection for the flower, and the trouble it got him into–that was the Doctor’s big clue, after all. The book only confirms what we already know.

There are some Whovian points of interest at the beginning of the story. First, Tegan says she wants to travel with the crew some more, so the Doctor doesn’t have to worry about getting her back to Heathrow just yet. Perhaps a bit surprising after all she’s been through, but maybe she didn’t realize until the beginning of the last story how much she had grown attached to her new friends. Also, the Doctor says that the Great Fire of London, which they caused at the end of the last story, would have happened anyway whether they had been there or not. This appears to be a reference to the “fixed point in time” concept which has become a big part of the New Series, explaining why the Doctor cannot prevent certain historical events, and their devastating consequences, from happening (e.g., the destruction of Pompeii).

To sum up, this is a good, enjoyable story. The die-hard Whovian ought to see it, and the casual Whovian would enjoy it, but not really be missing much if he or she skipped it.

Who Review: The Visitation

Strange lights in the sky portend doom in mid-seventeenth century England. At least it does for a local squire, whose household comes under attack from an alien visitor, who, after killing everyone, takes up temporary residence in the squire’s basement.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, attempting to return Tegan to Heathrow airport, arrives 300 years early. When the crew set out to explore, they are accosted by locals with large sticks. Thankfully, a new friend comes to the rescue. Richard Mace is an actor turned highwayman, who uses his guns to frighten away their attackers. It seems a plague has gripped the town, which explains the xenophobic reaction to the Doctor and his friends. No-one knows where the plague came from, so all strangers are suspect. But something’s not right. Mace wears a necklace that the Doctor identifies as some kind of control device of alien origin. Worn around the neck as an ornament, it’s harmless. But attached to the wrist, according to its original design, it takes over the mind of the wearer. Now separated from the TARDIS, and without the TARDIS tracker, which Adric lost in the scuffle with the villagers, the crew plus Mace take refuge in a nearby barn. There they come across more evidence of an alien presence. The barn is on the grounds of a manor house, and the Doctor believes that’s where they will find answers. Little does the Doctor know, that manor house is under alien occupation. And a deadly surprise awaits them…

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 Visitation” is the first of the two outstanding stories from this season (the other is “Earthshock”), both written by newcomer Eric Saward. Indeed, such was the quality of his work with these stories, producer John Nathan-Turner appointed Saward script editor, taking over from Anthony Root. Saward makes his mark from the outset by giving a five minute prologue that sets the scene for the story, and ends up with the residents of a manor house, including the squire, all dying at the hands of an alien invader. When the TARDIS lands, we already have a sense of what the crew are walking into.

Things in the TARDIS are a little tense. First, the Doctor and Adric squabble over the events of the previous story, “Kinda.” In that story, Adric took over a “TSS,” an armed exploration vehicle that’s controled by thought. He panicked and nearly killed one of the Kinda. The Doctor is still upset with him about that, it seems, though they do eventually resolve their argument. Then, when the Doctor misses Heathrow by 300 years, Tegan gets upset and storms out. The Doctor has to chase after her and calm her down, assuring her he will get her home. The Fourth Doctor never had this much trouble with his crew!

At this point, they could have all piled back into the TARDIS and left. But the Doctor smells sulphur, becomes curious, then they are set upon by villagers and get involved to the point where the Doctor feels morally obliged to stick around until the Terileptils either leave or are defeated.

I noted a moment ago the spat between the Doctor and Adric. It seems as if we’re building to a big moment in Adric’s story (which we are). Eric Saward also wrote Adric’s final story, “Earthshock,” so I wonder if he was preparing for that story here with all the Adric bashing going on. Part of me wants to think Saward had a plan because that would be cool. But Adric and the Fifth Doctor have had a rocky relationship from the start. In this story we see very clearly how they have transformed from the wise mentor and his young student in the Fourth Doctor era, to the older brother and his annoying kid brother in the Fifth Doctor era. While they settle their dispute at the beginning, the Doctor doesn’t congratulate or even acknowledge Adric’s achievement in successfully piloting the TARDIS to the manor house. Tegan and Nyssa don’t hold back their applause, which makes the Doctor’s lack of enthusiasm more pronounced. If that wasn’t enough, when Adric asks if the Doctor knows where the Terileptils are, the Doctor responds with sarcasm: “That’s why I’m searching for them.” Again, I like to think all this is deliberate, setting us up for “Earthshock.”

The TARDIS crew is temporarily augmented in this story with the addition of actor-turned-highwayman, Richard Mace. He’s an interesting character since he seems largely motivated by self-preservation, though he does feel sympathy for his new friends. This kind of complexity, where a character has mixed motives, and hence a bit more depth, is good, and clearly something Saward relishes. The Terileptils also are not just straight-up monsters. These particular Terileptils have escaped a penal colony where they have been brutally treated. They can’t return to their home planet, and so act out of a desperate instinct to survive. Yet, despite their aggressive manner, they have a love of beauty and art, which is reflected somewhat in the design of their spacecraft, but especially in their android, with his colorful and bejeweled armor.

We get to see Nyssa’s TARDIS bedroom, which is where she takes the sonic enhancer she has made to destroy the android. I think this is the first time since “The Keeper of Traken” we have seen her doing something technical and practical to help the Doctor. She had been pretty much sidelined for the previous two stories, so it’s good to see her more involved here. After destroying the android, she confesses regret to Adric. The android was, after all, a magnificent machine enslaved to do the will of the Terileptils. This attitude reminds us of her Traken origins, which predisposes her to peace, kindness, and seeing the good in things.

A landmark moment in this story is the destruction of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. This device had been a part of the show since the Second Doctor story, “Fury from the Deep,” making occasional appearances until well into the Third Doctor’s time when it became an established prop. Both producer John Nathan-Turner and Saward felt the sonic screwdriver had been overused as a convenient device to get the Doctor out of trouble. They wanted him to use his head more than his gadgets, so Saward wrote its demise into “The Visitation.” Little did Saward know, however, that Nathan-Turner didn’t plan to bring the sonic screwdriver back. Saward thought the Doctor would go back to the TARDIS at the end of the story and pull another sonic screwdriver out of a drawer. But Nathan-Turner’s vision held sway, marking this the last time we see the sonic screwdriver in the Classic Series.

In the end, the Doctor makes history, literally, by destroying the Terileptils, and accidentally starting the Great Fire of London in the process. Thus is explained one of history’s great mysteries!

“The Visitation” is well worth your time, borderline “Must See.” Eric Saward’s script is well constructed with good dialog and engaging characters. The BBC knows how to do historical costume dramas, so the costumes and sets are excellent. Even the Terileptil costume, while limited, isn’t bad for low-budget early 1980s sci-fi. Indeed, the use of animatronics to control the creatures “fins” and lips was considered cutting edge at the time. Definitely a story for both the die-hard and the casual Whovian.