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Who Review: The Mutants

The Doctor is tinkering with the TARDIS, trying to get it working, when a capsule arrives from the Time Lords. This multi-faced container can only be opened by the intended recipient, so the Time Lords control the Doctor’s TARDIS to take him where he needs to go. Jo travels with the Doctor to a space station orbiting the planet Solos in the 30th century. There they encounter the Overlords, Earth colonists who rule the planet, but are on the verge of withdrawing. The security officer, known as the Marshal, opposes withdrawal, and conspires to have the Administrator from Earth assassinated as he is about to grant Solos independence. The Marshal takes command and accuses Ky, one of the Solonians attending the Ambassador’s speech, of murder. Caught up in the confusion, the Doctor and Jo run into Ky who activates the message capsule. The message is for him! But before they can do anything about it, Ky takes Jo hostage and escapes back to Solos. The Doctor, meanwhile, remains a guest of the Marshal and his chief scientist, who together plan to reconstitute the lethal atmosphere of Solos making it deadly to the native inhabitants, but friendly to humans. The Doctor needs to fulfill his mission from the Time Lords, but how can he as a prisoner of the Marshal? And how will he rescue Jo from the Solonian tribes, and the mutant creatures (“Mutts”) that roam the poisonous planet…?

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!

Bob Baker and Dave Martin return as writers for this six-part story. Once again, we see the production team trying to escape the confines of Earth-bound stories, this time having the Doctor play messenger boy for the Time Lords. It’s a bit of a flimsy premise for getting the Doctor away from 20th century Earth. There are many other Time Lords they could have used, least of all one who’s supposed to be serving time for interference. Perhaps they appreciate his tenacity and ingenuity, and are willing, therefore, to take the risk that he will do the job? I’m not 100% convinced, but it serves the purpose as a plot device.

On the whole, “The Mutants” is a good, solid story, with plenty of hot political topics running through, not least of which are colonialism, racism, and ecology. The Earth Overlords are the dominant people, and they treat the Solonians as their underlings. Even the space station has segregated areas for Overlords and Solonians. As for the “Mutts,” the Overlords regard them as dangerous monsters that deserve to be destroyed.

One of the ingenious plot surprises is the fact that these mutants are not, in fact, monsters, but are the next stage in the Solonians’ natural life-cycle. Like butterflies, the Solonians transform from humanoid to “Mutt,” and then finally to a kind of super being, able to control energy and fly through walls. The Overlords’ experiments on the atmosphere of Solos has affected the natural cycle of change, so people are transforming into “Mutts” ahead of schedule, “like a butterfly coming out of its chrysalis in winter,” as the Doctor puts it. Thankfully, with the information from Ky’s message, and a special crystal, the Doctor is able to put things right.

The Marshal is a wonderfully evil character, full of ego and malice. His eventual demise is a bit of an anticlimax, but I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. On the one hand, you kind of want the Solonians to make the most of his sudden defeat and take revenge on him. But having the Marshal zapped into non-existence removes the possibility of revenge, which, I think, is the better path. It certainly gives the Solonians the moral high ground.

The mutant costumes aren’t bad, especially for their time. It’s hard for 1970s monsters to not look like people in costumes, and here we have a valiant attempt to make giant bug-like creatures that are unnerving, at least in design if not in execution.

Probably the most awkward scene is when Jo and others are about to be sucked out into space after a hole is blown in the side of the space station. The hanging-on-for-dear-life acting goes on a bit long, and they all look like they’re just waiting for someone to shout “cut!”

Aside from these few weaknesses, “The Mutants” is a worthy addition to the Whovian playlist. Perhaps not vital to one’s DVD collection (unless, like me, you’re a completist), but certainly one to watch.

Who Review: The Sea Devils

The Doctor and Jo visit The Master, who is under lock-and-key in a small island prison. While there, they learn that ships have been disappearing without trace for no apparent reason. At first the Doctor suspects the Master is somehow behind it. But, of course, the Master is in prison and under guard 24/7, which makes such an idea highly implausible. After visiting the local Naval Base for more information, they make their way to an old sea fort the Navy is planning to convert into a testing center. This old fort appears to be at the center of the disappearances. When the Doctor and Jo arrive, they discover the place deserted except for one dead man, and another babbling about “Sea Devils.” Then the boat they came in is destroyed, leaving them stranded. And something else is in the fort, a creature the Doctor has encountered before, staking a claim to the Earth. Only this time, they intend to follow through with that plan, and they have terrestrial help. It seems the Doctor’s worst fears might not be so far fetched…

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 Sea Devils” is a six-part story, written by Malcolm Hulke, who also wrote the Silurian story in the Third Doctor’s first season. The creatures don’t refer to themselves as “Sea Devils” because they were originally supposed to be Silurians, though I think they’re now actually cousins of the Silurians. Whatever the relationship, their purpose is the same: reclaim the planet that was once theirs before man took it over.

Classic Who costumes regularly come under fire, and I understand why. Prosthetics and latex application techniques were still fairly primitive in 1972, even outside the BBC, so the results were often far from what the designers would have preferred. That said, I think the Sea Devil costumes are pretty good for their time. I like the turtle-ish mouth, and the watery eyes, which give that sea creature feel to them. Of course, they’re nowhere near as good as they would be today, but that’s an unfair comparison.

This story marks the return of the Master, after being captured at the end of “The Daemons.” As usual, Roger Delgado plays him with gentlemanly menace. When he tells the Doctor how time in prison has made him reflect upon his life, and that he has everything he needs “except my freedom,” we almost feel sorry for him. But of course, it’s all a sham, and when the Master’s hold over the prison governor, Colonel Trenchard, becomes evident, we aren’t really surprised. Perhaps one of the best moments in the story is the scene that opens with the Master watching “The Clangers” on television. For those don’t know, “The Clangers” was a popular children’s stop-motion animated series. Each five minute episode revolved around these pink knitted aliens with long aardvark-like noses that live on a planet somewhere. They only talk in whistles and whoops, and a narrator tells the stories and supplies a translation of their noises. It was one of my favorite shows when I was a young child. The Master is fascinated by them, and rightfully so! 🙂 This scene was replayed, sort of, in the Tenth Doctor story, “The Sound of Drums,” where we see the Master watching “Teletubbies.”

One thing about the Master’s appearance in “The Sea Devils” that I’m not totally sold on is why the Sea Devils are so willing to form an alliance with him. They say they need him to build the machine that will reawaken the other Sea Devils around the world, but looking at the technology they already have, why couldn’t they do this themselves? Maybe I missed something? I don’t recall the Silurians needing help with their hi tech alarm clock. It seems the Master needed the Sea Devils more than they needed him, so he could take out his revenge on the people who locked him up, and on the Doctor, since he likes Earth so much.

What else to note? This is the first appearance of the sonic screwdriver in the Third Doctor era. He uses it first as a mine detector, and then to detonate the mines when pursued by a Sea Devil.

Overall, I would rate this a good story, though the theme’s basically the same as the Silurians: the Sea Devils want to reclaim Earth, and find a willing accomplice on Earth. The authorities are skeptical at first, but then want to blow up the Sea Devils. The Doctor wants to negotiate peace. The difference between this story and “The Silurians” is that the Sea Devils reject the Doctor’s offer to negotiate with the humans, forcing the Doctor to blow up their base.

That repetition of plot is probably my biggest criticism of the story. Otherwise, this is definitely not a waste of time. Not essential, and not the best, but good and worth seeing.

Who Review: The Curse of Peladon

The Doctor thinks he might have fixed the TARDIS when he and Jo find themselves transported to the somewhat barbaric kingdom of Peladon. They arrive just as delegates from the Galactic Federation are convening to consider Peladon’s petition to join. The young king believes this to be their way out of the dark ages. Peladon is rich in minerals, and the Federation will open doors to trade, and new cultures and ideas. But not everyone is convinced the king has Peladon’s best interests at heart, least of all those who see joining the Federation as an abandonment of the old traditions. Councellor Torbis encourages the king in his ambitions for Peladon, but the High Priest Hepesh warns that the king will bring the ancient curse of Aggedor upon them if he turns his back on the old ways. When Torbis winds up dead, there is fear that Hepesh was right. The Doctor and Jo, passing themselves off as the delegation from Earth, can’t leave without trying to help. After all, they might well be Aggedor’s next victims…

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!

Script Editor Terrance Dicks and Producer Barry Letts were clearly very anxious to get the Doctor roaming time and space again. The Doctor’s Earth exile was a burden handed to them from the end of the Second Doctor era, and while it was good for a few episodes, they found it too limiting. With all of time and space to explore, confining the Doctor to fighting alien visitations with U.N.I.T. gets old very quickly. One way out was to have the Time Lords send the Doctor on errands, returning him to Earth afterwards. We saw this in “Colony in Space,” and we see it again in “The Curse of Peladon.”

Brian Hayles, creator of the Ice Warriors (which feature prominently in this story) wrote “The Curse of Peladon,” and a good job of it he did too, I think. It’s a neat four-parter, with a credible story and plenty of intrigue and action. At the time of writing, Britain was considering entering the European Economic Community, or the “Common Market”–the forerunner to the E.U. The political arguments of the day seem to be reflected in Hayles’s story. That’s not a criticism, but a point of interest, and it goes to show how universal themes are often at the heart of some of our most controversial issues. Tradition versus progress. Individualism versus globalization. The old tried-and-true ways versus the new and risky.

This is a great story for Jo Grant. She takes charge of the situation, concocting the story that she’s a princess, and the Doctor is her underling. She’s shows strength dealing with King Peladon (played by Patrick Troughton’s son, David), especially since the king appears to be spinally challenged. He starts off unsure, dependent on his advisers with no confidence in his own ability to make wise decisions. By the end of the story, he proves himself a worthy king and leader of his people. And I’m sure Jo had no small role in that. She also takes the initiative in trying to figure out who is behind the attempts to kill delegate members.

Perhaps the biggest fail of the story is the Aggedor costume. Aggedor is supposed to be a mighty, fearsome beast. But when we see him, he’s hardly very large and imposing. I wouldn’t expect anything like what they could do today, with modern technology and budgets, but I think it falls short, even by 1972 standards. Alpha Centuri’s costume is also a bit dodgy (its multiple arms are clearly strung together to give the impression of movement), but on the other hand quite creative. I’d like to see Alpha Centuri return in the New Series; it’d be interesting to see what a better budget could do for him… her… whatever.

Also, subtly hinted at throughout is the idea that “religion” and “superstition” hold back progress. Certainly, the religion of Aggedor, with its primitive rituals and barbaric punishments, is a good caricature of such “religion.” As far as I could tell, though, the problem wasn’t Hepesh’s intransigent adherence to the old faith, but the lack of tolerance on both sides for each other’s perspective. There was no allowing for the possibility that the Cult of Aggedor could continue under the new king without imposing itself on everyone, giving the king freedom to make decisions without having to get the High Priest’s blessing.

All in all, “The Curse of Peladon” is worthy of your time. Not must-see Who, but there aren’t many stories that are, though most are good enough to warrant the Whovian’s attention. This one is certainly good enough.

What are your thoughts regarding “The Curse of Peladon”?

Who Review: Day of the Daleks

It’s the late twentieth century, and international affairs on Earth have reached a crisis point . Sir Reginald Stiles is trying to organize a peace conference at Auderly House in England, hoping to avert World War Three. When he encounters what appears to be a ghost threatening him at gunpoint in his study one night, his assistant contacts U.N.I.T. Stiles immediately dismisses the apparition as nonsense, but the Doctor isn’t convinced. Then a mysterious soldier appears on the grounds of the house, dead. His weapon is centuries ahead of its time, and the box he’s carrying turns out to be a time travel device. The Doctor manages to activate the device, but with no apparent effect, so he and Jo volunteer to keep watch at the house overnight while Stiles heads off to China. The next day, they are visited by three of the mysterious soldiers, intent on killing Stiles. Mistaking the Doctor for the diplomat, the leader orders his immediate execution to save the planet from a war he will start. A war that will lead to global devastation, enabling the most ruthless race in the universe to step in and take over…

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!

Jon Pertwee’s third season as the Doctor launched in January 1972 with the return of the Daleks after a five year absence. Louis Marks’ original tale didn’t feature the Daleks, but having just obtained Dalek creator Terry Nation’s permission to bring them back, Script Editor and Producer team Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts wanted to feature them as soon as possible. Marks managed to find a prominent place for them in his scripts, and the result was record ratings for the show.

It’s to Marks’ credit, I think, that the Daleks don’t appear to be late additions. Their role in the story is quite well defined as the brains behind the government, using people to do their dirty work, which is often how they operate. The story of how they rose to power, and found people willing to help them, doesn’t seem contrived.

The story itself is good, and I can’t find any major plot holes. Even the possible objection that, given the ability to travel in time, any failure to stop World War Three could be fixed by simply going back in time again and correcting whatever went wrong, is addressed, though perhaps not very satisfactorily. The “Blinovich Limitation Effect” is given as a reason why you can’t change something you did in the past, rather like the “fixed point in time” is given in the New Series. It’s not really a solid reason, but more like a patch over a potential plot hole.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story is the fact that, while the resistance fighters have all along been blaming Stiles for the explosion that resulted in the death of the conference delegates and the start of World War Three, it was in fact their own tampering in time that caused the fatal explosion. This kind of temporal paradox was not new to science fiction, but it hadn’t really been explored in Doctor Who until now, and it’s rather cleverly done here.

I have mixed feelings about the fact that you never really know what’s going on until the last episode. At the beginning, you learn about the rebels and their desire to kill Stiles. You then learn about the government and their oppression of people in the future, and then you discover that the Daleks are the ones in power. By that time, you have all the strands of the story in your hand, waiting for an explanation to tie them all together. That explanation comes in the form of expository dialog in Episode Four. On the one hand this structure keeps the audience in suspense and tuning in each week to find out what’s going on. But on the other, it leaves the audience frustrated, and perhaps confused, and not really engaged with how the Doctor’s going to solve the situation.

I definitely felt the absence of the original Dalek voice actors in this story. The Dalek voices in “Day of the Daleks” just don’t cut it. I’m not sure why Roy Skelton or any of the other voice actors from five years ago weren’t used, but these sound very odd and very out of place. Also, while the Ogrons make for a good, menacing kind of thug monster, they sound like the Gumbies from Monty Python:

The DVD release features a second disc with a “Special Edition” version of the serial, with CGI special effects, and replacement Dalek voices performed by New Series Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs. These Dalek voices are definitely an improvement, but I could do without most of the new CGI effects. The DVD came out in 2011, and already they look dated. The only effect I think stands up well is the improved laser blast.

This is one worth watching, simply because it’s a good story, though you will have to overlook some of the production failings noted above. The pace also demonstrates why, with few exceptions, four parts are better than six or seven. Also of interest is the Doctor showing himself to be a wine connoisseur, and the Doctor shooting an Ogron unprovoked. Terrance Dicks regards this as a mistake, since the Doctor would never use violence except when attacked or to defend someone else who is being attacked.

Who Review: The Daemons

The eyes of the nation are on Devil’s End, a village where a Bronze Age mound is about to be excavated. Local white witch, Olive Hawthorne, warns against the project saying untold evil will be unleashed by disturbing the site. No-one believes her, except, oddly, the Doctor. Jo is surprised given the Doctor has just lectured her on the superiority of science over superstition. But the Doctor’s concerns aren’t about the supernatural, but about an ancient visitor to Earth who is about to be awakened, and is ready to wreck havoc across the entire planet. What the Doctor doesn’t know is that this ancient visitor has an ally, the mysterious new vicar Mr. Magister, whose interest in the occult seems at odds with his profession. Using centuries old rites and incantations, Magister is determined to help his new friend achieve his goals. The Doctor must stop him before it’s too late.

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!

Doctor Who does Hammer Horror in this five part story written by “Guy Leopold”–a pseudonym for producer Barry Letts and his writing partner Robert Sloman. And there are plenty of Hammer tropes to enjoy, including villagers with their traditions and folklore, Morris Dancers who turn violent, a white witch foretelling doom, and a vicar who doubles as a red-robed Satanic priest holding occult rituals under the church. Toward the end, we even very nearly have a human sacrifice!

“The Daemons” was much praised for its well-written script and better-than-usual special effects when it first broadcast in May and June of 1971. Over the years it has received more mixed, maybe jaded, reviews, but it still holds a special place in the hearts of many fans. Undoubtedly the script is one of the better of the Pertwee era. This is partly due to the fact that Barry Letts, the show’s producer for the past couple of years, co-wrote it, bringing to bear his intimate knowledge of the characters, and careful observation of the actors.

Personally, I think the effects are good for their time. These include giant hoof prints in a field seen from a helicopter, an archway cut into a heat barrier enabling U.N.I.T. soldiers to pass through, and a church blowing up at the end. All these were done with video trickery and models–no CGI. I’m impressed, anyway.

The U.N.I.T. technician called upon to help the Doctor in this story is Sergeant Osgood. If you’ve been following the New Series, you’ll recognize that name. Osgood was a U.N.I.T. scientist in “The Day of the Doctor,” reappearing in New Series Seasons Eight and Nine. Though never explicitly stated, according to Steven Moffat, New Series Osgood is, in fact, the daughter of Sergeant Osgood. What did you expect with a fanboy running the show? 🙂

This is a good story, but it’s not without its problems, chief of which is the ending. Terrance Dicks says he doesn’t like it because it doesn’t make sense. Azal, the last of the Daemons from Daemos, has been on the Earth for thousands of years, helping mankind grow in knowledge and skill. The Earth has been an experiment for the Daemons, and Azal will soon decide whether or not to end the experiment and destroy the planet. In the end he decides to pass on his power to the Doctor, but the Doctor refuses. Somewhat put out by the Doctor’s snub, Azal decides to gift his power to the Master (who was posing as the vicar, Mr. Magister). Before doing that, he takes the Master’s advice and attacks the Doctor, intending to kill him. Jo, however, throws herself in the way, offering her life in place of the Doctor’s. This illogical act of self-sacrifice confuses Azal who has a sudden existential crisis, resulting in self-destruction, taking out the church as well as himself. Dicks’ problem with this is the fact that, having been on Earth for thousands of years, Azal would have witnessed countless acts of selflessness, so what Jo did shouldn’t have been such a shock to the old alien. I would add to this the fact that throughout the story, the Doctor has pushed science over superstition, and yet it was something as unscientific and intangible as Jo’s love for her friend that defeated the bad guy. Surely it would have been more consistent for the Doctor to come up with a scientific weapon to destroy Azal?

Of course, the story is typical of Doctor Who in that it wants to be theologically agnostic, but can’t help leaning toward skepticism, or outright atheism, while on the other hand upholding logic, reason, love, good, and evil, for which there are no scientific explanations. The Doctor tells Jo there’s a scientific explanation for everything in life. He warns her that the Daemons are far more real than any “mythical” devil, but they are not evil, simply amoral: they will help as long as they somehow benefit from helping. And yet the Daemons punish failure with destruction, something the Doctor wouldn’t consider “amoral.” Further, the Doctor tries to persuade Azal to leave by making a moral argument based on how much his “help” has actually increased man’s power of self-destruction. It would be better for mankind, he says, if Azal were to go. Clearly, the Doctor thinks the fact that man can blow up the Earth many times over, thanks to Azal’s training and guidance, is a bad thing. From a purely rationalistic point of view, why is this the case? And who has the right to say it’s bad? Indeed, by confronting Azal, the Doctor is saying he is wrong. On what scientific basis does the Doctor object to Azal’s experiment? One could write an entire thesis on the moral conundrums bubbling under the surface of Who, so I’ll leave it at that.

In short, despite the dodgy ending, “The Daemons” is a good story, a great script, and worthy of your time.

Who Review: Colony in Space

The Time Lords are concerned. The Master has stolen files pertaining to a highly dangerous weapon, known as the “Doomsday Weapon.” Reluctantly, they agree to make use of the Doctor to investigate. Rather than sending a message, they take control of his TARDIS and temporarily release him from his exile, sending him, and unwitting passenger Jo Grant, to the planet Uxarieus. There the Doctor and Jo encounter a colony of people trying, and failing, to make a life for themselves away from the overcrowded and polluted Earth of 2472. To add to the colonists’ worries, the Intergalactic Mining Corporation is laying claim to the planet so they can excavate its precious minerals, particularly “duralinium.” Also there have been reports of giant reptiles, and giant claw marks on machinery. The Doctor is convinced someone is using trickery to scare the colonists away, but who’s responsible, and how can they be stopped, especially without evidence? When the colonists summon the assistance of an Adjudicator to settle the dispute between them and the IMC, the Doctor has high hopes the issue will be resolved–until he meets the Adjudicator…

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 six-part story was written by Malcolm Hulke, who weaves some hot political issues of the day into a story that thinly veils his left-wing politics. We have the colonists and their relationship with the “primitive” natives, clearly taking a jab at colonialism and the treatment of the natives. Then there’s the big, greedy, powerful corporation coming in to lay waste to the planet for its own profit, with no thought for the lives of either the natives or the newcomers. This won’t be the last time a writer uses Who as a vehicle for his or her social or political viewpoint. Thankfully, it’s usually done with a good story, so you can agree or disagree with the writer while still enjoying the show.

The Time Lords make their first appearance since “The War Games” to introduce the main story: the Master has stolen documents concerning the Doomsday Weapon. It’s interesting that for much of the story, this plot thread gets lost in the colonists struggle against IMC. The Doctor’s visit to the primitive city uncovers another layer, and a deeper history to the planet, that drops some subtle hints at what’s going on. Then the Master shows up, and, knowing what the Time Lords have told us, we know he has an agenda that involves the Doomsday Weapon. Another subtle hint is offered when the Master shows an interest in the old, primitive city. Of course, having stolen the documentation, he knows what he’s doing. Hulke draws the threads together when the Weapon is unveiled, and we find out it has been leaking radiation into the soil, which is why the colonists attempts at farming have been so disastrous. It’s a bit of a slow-burning plot, but if you stick with it, there’s a satisfying conclusion.

If “The Claws of Axos” was visually ground-breaking with its use of video effects, “Colony in Space” is quite the opposite. All the action takes place over a couple of sets, and there’s sparing use of video effects. It’s almost as if they blew the effects budget on “Claws,” and had to make do for “Colony.” But the story doesn’t demand a lot of video manipulation, though there are some good old traditional bangs and flashes, and plenty of action–particularly in the form of gun battles. It’s a little strange to see so much shooting and death (albeit bloodless) in Doctor Who, but this was the 1970s, and these were the kinds of games boys, especially, played in the school yard. I think we have a different sensibility about this kind of thing today which we have to suspend to appreciate Classic Who for what it was. All that to say, the show is pacy and interesting enough that the lack of effects doesn’t matter. The viewer can easily stay engaged for the entire six episodes.

The acting is good, though wonky at times–especially during the aforementioned gun battles. Maybe they played them down a bit so they would be more on the level of what kids would do at school, fearing kids would be traumatized it the battles were too realistic? I don’t know, but there’s no doubt the guns were firing blanks, and no-one was seriously hurt.

Overall, it’s a solid story, and worthy of a Whovian’s time. It’s Jo’s first adventure in the TARDIS–indeed, the first time Jo goes inside the TARDIS. She delivers the classic line, “It’s bigger on the inside,” and the Doctor gives the explanation: “It’s dimensionally transcendental.” When Jo asks what that means, the Doctor replies, “It’s bigger on the inside.” 🙂 So, not essential Who, but a fun way to spend a couple of hours that you won’t regret.

Who Review: The Claws of Axos

A mysterious flying object lands somewhere in the south of England, embedding itself into the ground. At first the Ministry of Security wants to treat it as hostile, but the Doctor intervenes, and, along with U.N.I.T., investigates this strange craft. It seems the occupants are a race of beings known as Axons. They are in need of fuel, and are willing to give Mr. Chinn, a Ministry representative, some powerful Axionite in exchange for the chance to refuel their ship. The Axons demonstrate Axionite’s potential to replicate and grow any organism. It could solve the world’s hunger problems by producing and reproducing giant-sized grains and cattle. Mr. Chinn agrees, and all seems well, even if Chinn is determined to secure global rights to the use of Axionite for Great Britain. But there’s more to these Axons than they are letting on. Their true plan is to drain Earth’s energy. And when they discover the Doctor is a Time Lord, they expand their ambitions, and try to persuade him to help…

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 Claws of Axos” is a four-part story, and the first written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin. Baker and Martin went on to write more Classic Who stories, proving themselves to be more than capable of coming up with good scripts. Post-Who, Bob Baker helped write the Academy Award-winning “Wallace and Gromit” series of films.

The premise for the story is good, if only because it’s different from the normal “alien invasion” trope. Here, the aliens present themselves as beautiful, benevolent beings offering the riches of their planet as a thank-you for the humans’ hospitality. Everybody is sucked into this line, but soon the Doctor, Jo, and a few others stumble upon the real plan. The ship is Axon, and it, along with all the Axons and the Axionite, is a single organism whose sole purpose is to feed off of energy. By getting the humans to distribute Axionite throughout the world, the Axons can use the Axionite as a conduit through which they can drain the Earth’s energy.

In this story we see probably the most extensive use of video effects so far in Doctor Who. And for 1971, they aren’t bad, using chroma key (“green screen”), distorted pictures, and other forms of picture manipulation. Of course, not nearly as sophisticated as New Who, but relatively impressive. And having experimented with these new techniques here, you can be sure we’ll see them again in coming stories.

There were a couple of characters that seemed a little pointless. Bill Filer, the man from Washington with the briefcase and the dodgy accent, for one. Filer has quite a big part in the story, and yet really serves no purpose, other than being a concern for Jo. Was he intended to be a love interest that didn’t work out? Or perhaps he was there to remind us of the international scope of the problem, while Mr. Chinn is blathering on about what’s good for jolly old England? The jury’s still out on that one, I think.

And then there’s the Master. Yes, the Doctor’s wily foe turns up again, but this time we encounter him as a prisoner of the Axons. I’ve been trying to think what role he plays in the overall plot, at least up until episode four, when he helps the Doctor fix his TARDIS (at least temporarily). Granted, this is an important part, since the Doctor uses his TARDIS to defeat the Axons by putting them in a time loop. In the process, the Master is reunited with his own TARDIS, which was captured by the Axons, and escapes. But what exactly was he doing for the first three episodes? And why didn’t the Axons make use of the Master’s knowledge of time travel while he was their prisoner? Maybe they read his mind and knew he couldn’t be trusted? But the Doctor wasn’t exactly a willing conspirator, so why should they trust him?

All in all, however, this is a good four-part story that moves along at a good pace and, my little issues aside, works well plot-wise. Even the stringy Axon monsters are creatively conceived, and about as convincing as you might expect on a 1971 BBC effects budget. The TARDIS does it’s first space travel since the Doctor was exiled, though the Time Lords have programmed the TARDIS so it always returns back to Earth. Nevertheless, this gets us out of the Earth-bound format, which makes for a nice change. Definitely one to put on the list of Who stories to watch.

Who Review: The Mind of Evil

The Doctor and Jo visit Stangmoor Prison to witness a demonstration of the new “Keller Machine.” This machine rehabilitates criminals by extracting the evil impulses from the brain. The Doctor is skeptical, and even after a seemingly successful demonstration, something about the machine unnerves him. Meanwhile, an international peace conference is taking place, and U.N.I.T. is in charge of security. A series of unexplained attacks, including the death of one of the delegates to the peace conference, heightens the Doctor’s concerns about the Keller machine, and the whole Keller process. The nature of the attacks makes him think they are connected. Someone is using the Keller Machine to influence the outcome of the peace conference. But who would want to start World War III? And can the Doctor put an end to the plan before it’s too late?

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 Mind of Evil” is a six-part story, first broadcast through February and into March of 1971. The Third Doctor, still exiled on Earth, is at Stangmoor to satisfy his curiosity with regard to this “Keller Machine.” His interest with the peace conference is only piqued when he suspects there might be a connection between the death of the delegate and the machine. It’s a good story, and it doesn’t drag over six episodes. Writer Don Houghton, who wrote “Inferno” in the previous season, has a good sense of pacing. Houghton went on to write movies, most notably Hammer horror movies, and I think both “Inferno” and “The Mind of Evil” would work well on the big screen without episode breaks.

The main weak point in the plot is the connection between the Keller Machine and the peace conference. It transpires that Emil Keller, inventor of the machine, is, in fact, the Master. His machine not only sucks evil impulses from the mind, but it feeds them to an alien Mind Parasite within the machine that uses those impulses to attack its victims. The Master has found a way to channel the Parasite’s telepathic ability, but he’s playing a dangerous game since the Parasite has a mind of its own. Parallel to this, the Master is planning to steal the “Thunderbolt” missile, containing a deadly gas, which U.N.I.T. is secretly transporting for disposal. It’s here that the connection becomes fuzzy. Yes, he uses the power of the Keller Machine to help him get the missile. But he also uses the machine to attack delegates. His plan is to start World War III, but either the machine or the missile would achieve that end–why use both? Especially given the instability of his Keller Machine.

In my review of “Terror of the Autons,” I wasn’t too impressed with Jo Grant as a companion. She seemed fairly useless, and more of a hindrance than a help. Given she stayed on as a companion for a few seasons, I expected some kind of “turn around,” or character development that would validate her. Well, I think “The Mind of Evil” was the story I was looking for. Not only does she behave with confidence in herself and the Doctor, but she actually makes herself useful. She rescues the Doctor from the Keller Machine, she single-handedly quells a prison riot, and helps the Doctor with his plans for securing the prison and stopping the Master. Definitely a good story for Jo!

Not only was this a good story for Jo, but U.N.I.T. actually looked like a competent military organization, again. The previous season was a bit of a disaster for the Brig and his boys, but here they actually execute maneuvers and, while foiled by the Master a couple of times, recover and cause problems for him. Captain Yates demonstrates initiative and courage, and Sergeant Benton takes his orders seriously. No wonder they both proved to be fan favorites.

The body count in this story is quite high, and this seems to be a feature of this era of Doctor Who that you don’t see much today: gun battles, and the Brigadier stepping over the bodies of the dead and wounded. They stop short of showing blood and gore, but the mere fact of people shooting at each other, and people apparently dying as a result, clearly didn’t phase kids in the early 1970s as it might today. I’m not sure why. Perhaps kids today expect to see a lot more damage from violent behavior. I don’t think twenty-first century kids would buy a gunshot wound with no blood, whereas kids of my generation would have no problem with that.

I have to applaud the use of a Chinese actress to play Captain Chin Lee of the Chinese delegation. Granted, the actress, Pik-Sen Lim, who is actually Malaysian-Chinese, was married to writer Don Houghton, but hers was not a gratuitous casting. She really can act, and she does an excellent job. Such ethnically-authentic casting was not common at this time, so this is a stand-out moment.

Finally, I can’t avoid commenting on the concept of “evil” in this story. Given the secular presuppositions of Doctor Who (even in the 1970s), the idea that there is some kind of objective standard of evil that a machine can detect and remove seems a bit out of place. It raises all kinds of questions: Who determined what is evil? By what right do they say “this is good” or “this is normal”? How “good” is good enough? How “evil” is too evil? Food for thought. 🙂

I’d say this one is worth watching for some good performances, and a good story.

Links and Stuff

We’re back with more links and stuff! April was A-to-Z Blogging Challenge month, and I hope you enjoyed the flash fiction fun. I’ll be posting an “A-to-Z Reflections” post next week, hopefully on Monday, where I’ll talk about this year’s adventure in the blogisphere. Blogosphere. Blogasphere. Whatever.

I’ve been collecting links over the past month, so I have a ton to share. Not all today, you’ll be pleased to know. And, in fact, some of them warrant special articles because they raise interesting issues. But for now, here’s today’s collection:

Of course, who didn’t hear about Prince’s death on April 21st? Hmmm… actually, probably a lot of people if you take the entire population of the planet into consideration. I’m sure there are a lot of people in India and China who have never heard of Prince. One person who has heard of Prince is Paul McCartney. He recently played a concert in the late pop star’s home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota, during which he launched into a mini tribute. See for yourself:

Wasn’t that nice? I can’t say I was ever a big Prince fan, but in a year in which we’ve already seen so many actors and musicians pass away, it’s notable when someone of his stature joins the list of dearly departed.

An actor death that probably slipped by many in the US, but certainly didn’t go unnoticed by me, was that of Gareth Thomas on April 13. I knew Gareth as the star of the British Sci-Fi drama, “Blakes 7” that ran from 1978-1981. My older brother and I watched the original run with almost as much devotion as we watched Doctor Who. A great series, and another sad loss to the entertainment world.

Speaking of Doctor Who, on Saturday, April 23, the BBC announced the name of the Twelfth Doctor’s new companion. The actress taking the role will be Pearl Mackie, who has quite a stage resume, but not much television. From the little clip they played introducing her, she seems up to the role–but what can you really tell in two minutes? She looks like she’s having fun, though, which will, hopefully, translate through the screen. Here’s the clip:

Her character’s name is Bill. An odd name for a girl you may think, as did I, until I remembered my aforementioned older brother has a female cat called Bill. 🙂 Here’s Pearl’s first interview:

As others have noted, she has a bit of an Eighties look about her. Might this new companion be from the past? That would make a change.

Anyway, that’s enough for the links and stuff this week. More next week!

Who Review: Terror of the Autons

While U.N.I.T. is investigating the disappearance of the sole surviving Nestene energy unit (see “Spearhead from Space”), the Doctor receives a visit from a Time Lord. He warns the Doctor that his old adversary, The Master–a renegade Time Lord, is, for some unknown reason, on Earth. It transpires the Master is working with the Nestenes in their quest for world domination, hoping to get a share in the rewards. With the Master and his hypnotic powers as their hands and feet, and their deadly plastic products widely disseminated, are the Autons set to succeed where they previously failed, or can the Doctor, U.N.I.T., and new companion Jo Grant find a way to save the world–again?

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 Third Doctor’s inaugural story, “Spearhead from Space,” and the monsters introduced in that story, the Autons, proved so popular that the production team hired Robert Holmes to write a follow-up to kick off the next season. This time, the Nestene Consciousness is expanding its product offerings from shop window dummies to chairs, dolls, daffodils, telephone cabling, and who knows how many other lines. Plastic was becoming a staple part of British homes in the early 1970s, so what better way to scare an audience than to imagine that even your favorite troll doll might come alive and strangle you in the night?

This does seem a logical step to take in the Nestene saga, though, at the time it aired (January, 1971), some felt it pushed the scare envelope a bit too far. I have to say, the scene where McDermott is suffocated by a large black plastic chair is a little disturbing, even by today’s standards. And while we don’t see the troll doll murder Mr. Farrell, his wife’s scream when she discovers his body, and the idea that a doll would commit murder, is, again, more than one might expect for a “children’s show.” Evidently, even this early on, Robert Holmes saw Doctor Who as more than just something to entertain the kids on a Saturday tea-time. He wasn’t afraid to play with the show’s darker potential, and give it more adult appeal.

“Terror of the Autons” introduces us to new companion Jo Grant. The Doctor informs us in an off-hand comment that Liz Shaw has returned to Cambridge. Her replacement could hardly be more dissimilar. Whereas Liz Shaw was a sharp scientist with multiple degrees, hired for her proven skill in her research fields, Jo Grant failed science, and got the job with U.N.I.T. because her uncle pulled some strings for her. This contrast was, no doubt, intentional, fearing the Doctor might be upstaged by a companion as smart himself, and conscious that the audience could get lost in their intellectual conversation. I disagree. Zoe worked out well for the Second Doctor, and I saw no problem with the rapport between Liz and the Doctor. As for losing the audience, the Second Doctor and Zoe had Jamie as their less intellectual foil, and the Third Doctor and Liz had the Brigadier.

Jo certainly gets off to an inauspicious start, destroying the Doctor’s experiment, getting caught and hypnotized by the Master, and inadvertently telling him that U.N.I.T. plans to send fighter planes to destroy the Autons. She does eventually manage to be of help to the Doctor, and all’s well that ends well. But if I didn’t know how much a part of the Third Doctor era Jo Grant would become, I wouldn’t have given her another season. I’m sure there’s a turning point for her character, but I don’t think it’s here.

“Terror of the Autons” also introduces The Master, the show’s third renegade Time Lord (after the Meddling Monk and The War Chief). He was conceived as the Doctor’s Moriarty, just as the Brigadier was the Doctor’s Watson. As with all the best evil counterparts, the Master is more than a match for his adversary: he scored better than the Doctor in his exams, he has a fully-working TARDIS, he is charming, a master of disguise, and has a stone cold heart that will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. Roger Delgado’s portrayal set the standard for all future incarnations. He blends just the right amount of arrogance and schmooze to make him believable. This is also the first time we see the Master’s trademark weapon (at least in the Classic series): the Tissue Compression Eliminator, which shrinks people to death (how on Earth did Robert Holmes come up with that?!)

The last thing I’ll comment on is the ending, about which I wholeheartedly agree with Script Editor Terrance Dicks. The Master’s sudden about-face when the Doctor reminds him that, given power, the Nestene won’t treat him any differently than the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced the Master would be so easily persuaded. I much prefer Dicks’ suggestion that the Brigadier simply pull a gun on the Master and tell him to do as the Doctor says. Though given the military competence displayed by U.N.I.T. last season, I’m not totally sure this would have worked. (To be fair, U.N.I.T. are considerably more impressive in this story. They actually seem like a military force to be reckoned with.) For whatever reason, Dicks let Holmes’ ending stand, perhaps out of respect for the writer.

This is the last time we see the Autons until their return in the opening episode of the 2005 reboot, “Rose.” The fact that Russell T. Davies chose the Autons to launch a new era of Doctor Who is both an homage to these two stories (“Spearhead from Space” and “Terror of the Autons”), and Robert Holmes, the creator of this simple, yet ingenious monster.

Your turn to share your thoughts!