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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.

Who Review: The Sun Makers

The TARDIS crew land on Pluto, and much to the Doctor’s surprise, it is inhabited. Not just inhabited, but developed, with tall buildings and multiple suns. However, the citizens of Pluto are not happy with their taxes, and are oppressed by the Company that rules them. It was this Company that made the suns that give Pluto its habitable environment, though the majority of the population is forced to stay inside and work, so few people have ever actually seen these suns. There is a small rebel group living underground that would like to overthrow their overlords, but consider the task too overwhelming. Captured by these rebels, the Doctor needs to convince them he and Leela can help lead their rebellion, but the suspicious-minded rebels will take some convincing that the Doctor isn’t a Company spy. Meanwhile, the Company tax gatherers have their eyes on the newcomers, and soon begin to see them as a threat to sustained profitability. The Doctor and Leela need to find a way to help the rebels, before they are liquidated…

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 Sun Makers” has to be Robert Holmes’s wittiest Doctor Who script. Holmes always managed to get humor into his stories, but this one is laced with jabs at the late 70s British tax system–some clear, and others more subtle. It seems Holmes had recently been audited by the tax man, and was feeling the sting of the assessment. Naturally, as a writer, this was the easiest vehicle for him to express his displeasure.

But the witty lines aren’t just at the expense of the Inland Revenue. At one point, the Doctor asks Leela if someone insulted him. Leela shoots back, “With a face like his, he wouldn’t dare!” At another, Leela instructs K-9 to shoot some guards. After successfully complying, K-9 asks Leela if his performance was satisfactory. “Yes!” says an exasperated Leela. “What? Do you want a biscuit?” One might object that, given Leela’s background, she wouldn’t know about dog biscuits. However, I can imagine this being something she had heard the Doctor say. Initially, the Doctor didn’t want K-9 to follow them out of the TARDIS. “Pluto,” he tells K-9, “is not a planet for…!” (Some Disney humor, there.)

A good Doctor Who serial can’t survive on gags and parody alone. There has to be a story, a plot, characters, maybe some world-building, and drama. Thankfully, Robert Holmes is more than capable of mixing all these elements, as is evident from his previous stories (e.g., “Spearhead from Space,” “The Time Warrior,” “The Ark in Space,” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”). There’s the pompous Gatherer, the oily Collector, and the hapless and hopeless workers. Then there are the underground rebels, ready to fight, but with a leader who doesn’t have it in him to rouse the necessary force, so they stagnate in the underground tunnels. The Doctor gives them purpose and a plan, making their impossible dream achievable. But with such a small force of fighters, the odds are definitely against him.

The rebellion the Doctor incites is, actually, quite brutal and violent. The rebels have no qualms about shooting their former oppressors. The climax of the insurgency is when they take hold of the Collector and throw him off the side of the building. The rebels watch him fall to his death, and cheer at his demise. When it’s all over, they see the Doctor off with waves and a cheerio, as if they’d all just been for a walk in the park. Quite surreal, and yet quite typical of 1970s Doctor Who.

At the end, the Gatherer turns out to have been a Usurian (word play on usury, no doubt), a creature whose natural form resembles seaweed. He had taken humanoid form to avoid suspicion, but the stress of his shrinking profit margin causes him to revert back to his original state. As the Gatherer shrinks and descends into his chair, the Doctor explains what’s happening to those gathered around him. He then plugs the hole in the Gatherer’s chair, securing him in place, and asks the crowd, “Would you take orders from a lump of seaweed?” I wonder how those people, trapped inside their buildings, who had never seen sunlight, would know what a lump of seaweed is, let alone whether they would be ruled by one!

All in all, this is good Who. It’s a lot of fun, with some great lines and an interesting story. It sounds like Robert Holmes had a lot of fun writing it. The props suffer from a very limited budget, but the performances are excellent. Maybe just shy of Must-See status, but not by much.

Who Review: Image of the Fendahl

Scientists working in a remote English village are experimenting with a skull found in Kenya. According to their best estimates, the skull is about 12,000 years old, much older than evolutionary science estimates the age of humans on Earth. They use a sonic time scan on the skull which has some unexpected side effects. First, the skull starts to glow. Next, it sucks the life force out of a young man who happens to be walking in the nearby woods. Also, for some reason, it seems drawn to one of the scientists, a lady named Thea, who goes into a trance-like state while the skull is glowing. Finally, it gets the attention of the TARDIS crew who pick up on the use of the time scan, and travel to Earth to investigate. The Doctor is shocked to discover that the skull is an artifact of the Fendahl, a creature from Gallifrey’s mythology. And this Fendahl is continuing to feed off the energy around it, and will continue to do so until there’s nothing else left. Unless the Doctor and Leela can stop it…

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!

“Image of the Fendahl” was written by Chris Boucher, who previously gave us “The Face of Evil” and “The Robots of Death,” two very good stories. “Image” is good, but doesn’t quite hit the same high as Boucher’s previous two efforts. It’s possible the reason for this lies in the fact that during production he was offered the job script editing a new sci-fi series called “Blakes 7” for the BBC. He accepted, and was, therefore, unavailable for script re-writes. These were left to Anthony Read, who was training to take over as Doctor Who script editor from Robert Holmes. So the mixing of the two very different styles probably accounts for the slightly less than dazzling script.

As I said, though, it’s still a good story, if a little convoluted. The initial idea of an ancient skull arriving on Earth thousands of years before man, and influencing man’s development has a lot of potential. The added twist that this skull is from the Fendahl, which was supposed to have been the stuff of Time Lord legend, was good, too. But then we get into how the Fendahl is drawing energy, and making use of Thea who then becomes the core of the Fendahl which it uses to convert members of a cult group into Fendahleen, which it plans to use to form a gestalt entity… you following? See what I mean.

There aren’t many special effects which, in fact, works to the story’s credit. As we saw with the previous story, “The Invisible Enemy,” lots of bad special effects can detract from a good story. For almost three episodes of “Image” the acting and plot take center stage, and you can appreciate it for the moody drama it is (along the lines of other British classic mysteries like “Sapphire and Steel” or “Tales of the Unexpected”). But then the Fendahleen come on the scene. Louise Jameson (Leela) says that when these large sea anemone-like creatures came shuffling down the corridor, she laughed. I don’t blame her. It’s not at all frightening, which means the actors are having to work doubly hard to convince the viewers that it really is scary (which it really isn’t).

I liked the fact that episode one had a double cliffhanger. Leela opened the door to a cottage only to be shot at, while, at the same time, the Doctor was being chased by the Fendahl energy. It’s not often we get two reasons to tune in next week, and having just watched “The Invisible Enemy” with its three pretty lame cliffhangers, this helped to compensate.

Also unusual for Doctor Who is the level of gunshot violence. In fact, there are two deaths by gun that I don’t think they would be allowed to do in modern Who. The first is where one of the scientists is shot in the head. We don’t see the actual shooting, but we hear the gunshot, and then the Doctor looks back, and we see the dead scientist with blood running from his right temple. Normally, Who tries to keep death bloodless, so this is highly unusual. The second is, I contend, even more controversial, since it involves another one of the scientists this time choosing to take his own life rather than become a Fendahleen. The Doctor actually passes the gun to the scientist, and, once again, we hear the shot off-screen. Not only is this a suicide (very controversial for a family show in 1977), but the Doctor is directly complicit in it. I’m sure the BBC had a lot of complaints that week.

This story is worth watching for the intrigue factor, if nothing else. It’s a bit of a different style, and all the actors put in very good performances. Really, aside from the twisty explanations (which you may well have no problem with) and the disasters that are the Fendahleen monsters, it’s a good serial. Watch if you have the time and opportunity.

Who News Flash: Peter Capaldi Leaving Doctor Who!

The BBC announced tonight that Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor, will be stepping down from the role at the end of this year. Season Ten, which begins broadcasting on April 15th, will be his last. He will regenerate into the Thirteenth Doctor on Christmas Day.

When Steven Moffat announced that Season Ten would be his last as show-runner, there was speculation that Capaldi might follow suit. David Tennant left when Russell T. Davies handed the show to Moffat back in 2010, giving Moffat the opportunity to choose his own Doctor. It seems Moffat and Capaldi are doing the same for Chris Chibnall, who will take over from Moffat starting with Season Eleven in 2018.

So Chris Chibnall is now hunting for a new Doctor. I expect there will be a global simulcast, like they did for Capaldi in 2013, to make the announcement. I’d say we can look for that sometime in the Summer.

Who do you think would make a good Thirteenth Doctor?

Who Review: The Invisible Enemy

There’s a strange, sentient virus lingering out in space, looking for a suitable host. It infects a passing space cruiser, which then makes a landing on the nearby Titan Base, infecting most of the crew. One of the last to be infected sends out a distress call which is intercepted by the TARDIS, which happens to be within range. This means, of course, that the TARDIS is also within reach of the virus. Passing through the TARDIS console, the virus attacks the Doctor, but rejects Leela. The Doctor is momentarily dazed, but doesn’t appear affected… for now. The TARDIS crew land on Titan Base to investigate the distress call, only to find most of the crew dead, and the virus-controlled cruiser crew hunting them down. The Doctor, it seems, is a most suitable host for the virus’s Nucleus, so they want to keep him safe until it’s time for the Nucleus to spawn. As the infection takes hold of the Doctor, Leela gets him to the nearest medical facility. But how to fight a microscopic enemy that transmits through eye contact, and for which there is no known antidote? With the help of Professor Marius and his mechanical dog, K-9, the Doctor and Leela risk their lives to take the most extraordinary journey, to fight the enemy within…

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!

There was a cartoon series my older brother and I used to enjoy watching when we were young called “Fantastic Voyage.” It was originally made in the late Sixties, but repeated in the Seventies, which is when we saw it. The cartoon series was based on a movie of the same name, featuring a team of special agents in some kind of flying craft that went on special missions to fight all manner of ne’er-do-wells. The hook was that they, and their vehicle, were miniaturized. This meant they could fight microscopic baddies, as well as regular-sized ones. It was a cool, albeit short-lived, show. And one can’t help thinking writers Dave Martin and Bob Baker were inspired by it for this particular Doctor Who serial (though neither has admitted this to be the case).

“The Invisible Enemy” suffers, I think, from ideas way beyond its budget. Despite the best intentions of the writers, producers, and designers, there is no way they could, at that time, accomplish on screen all the ambition that Baker and Martin put into their script. To give them credit, they did the best they could with what they had, combining Color Separation Overlay (green screen), model shots, and duct tape and bailing wire to try to pull off something half credible. This means for the 21st century viewer to appreciate the story, s/he needs to pay a lot more attention to the plot and the dialog than to the visual execution.

That’s not to say all the visuals are terrible. The signs on Titan Base, and on the medical center, are all spelled phonetically (e.g., “EGSIT” and “ISOLAYSHUN WARD”). Baker and Martin clearly have a thing for space ship signage. In their Third Doctor story, “The Mutants,” the signs on Skybase One include directions for “Mutants” and “Overlords” as well as reminders to wear an oxymask before going outside. Also, K-9, the robot dog, works well visually, even if it is a bit clunky and noisy. It seems K-9 ended up joining the TARDIS crew to justify the cost of making it. K-9 stays on board for the next 2-3 years, much to Tom Baker’s chagrin. Tom hated working with K-9 because he always had to crouch down to get in shot when talking with it. But the kids loved the tin dog so he put up with it.

However, some of the effects just don’t cut it. The big fluffy white balls that are supposed to be the Doctor’s antibodies are hardly convincing. But worse of all has to be the Nucleus itself, especially in its man-size form. It looks like a giant shrimp, and not a very scary one at that. I don’t know what the designer was going for, but I’ve seen more frightening things in the bath tub. It might have made a killing as a soft toy, however.

I’m no scientist, but I’m sure a neurologist would have a field day with all the “inside the brain” scenes. All that talk about the left and right sides of the brain not being able to see each other–I’m fairly certain that’s not entirely the case. Indeed, studies have shown that if one side of the brain shuts down, the other side will compensate, so there must be some interaction. Maybe this is as much as scientists understood back in 1977. Or maybe Baker and Martin were victims of bad pop science. Or maybe I’m wrong and this is totally accurate!

In any case, “The Invisible Enemy” is not a bad story, a bit ambitious, but perhaps a little cringeworthy for modern sensibilities. As the first K-9 story, it has some historical merit, but aside from that, I would say this is one for the die-hards, but not to everyone’s taste.