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Who Review: Horror of Fang Rock

Intending to take Leela on a trip to Brighton, the TARDIS crew ends up on a foggy island in Edwardian England. The island, Fang Rock, is home to a lighthouse, but there doesn’t appear to be any light coming from the lighthouse, leaving ships vulnerable to the rocks in the heavy fog. The Doctor decides to investigate. But the power drainage from the new-fangled electric light is as much a mystery to the lighthouse staff. As is the dead body the Doctor finds in the boiler room. Things become even more complicated when a luxury yacht runs aground, and its wealthy crew take shelter. Not only are there mysterious goings-on, but now there are tetchy visitors to deal with. However, as the body count begins to mount, and the lighthouse staff report strange lights in the sky and formerly dead people coming back to life, it becomes apparent things are a lot more serious than they at first thought. Indeed, there’s an uninvited guest in their midst, and it wants them dead…

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!

Season Fifteen gets off the ground with a story by Doctor Who stalwart, Terrance Dicks, his first since “The Brain of Morbius” a few seasons ago. More significantly, this is the first story with new producer, Graham Williams, taking over the reins from the legendary Philip Hinchcliffe. While Williams seems to continue the “Gothic horror” feel Hinchcliffe tried to establish, it’s noticeable there’s been a change at the helm. Perhaps where I noticed it most is in the cliffhangers. Hinchcliffe insisted that every cliffhanger be a good one. We saw this particularly in the last couple of stories of the previous season, where the cliffhangers were genuine edge-of-the-seat page-turners. The three cliffhangers in “Fang Rock” are… meh. The first is the ship running aground. The second is a scream from the boiler room. And the third, possibly the best, is the Doctor admitting he made a mistake, having locked the enemy inside with them.

This is, as you might guess, a base-under-siege story, where everything happens within a single location with the threat coming from either without or within. These were popular during the Second Doctor era (e.g., “The Moonbase,” “The Web of Fear,” and “The Invasion”), and crop up from time-to-time, even in the modern era (e.g., the Twelfth Doctor story, “Mummy on the Orient Express”). This format gives plenty of opportunity for tension and drama. You don’t just have the threat from the bad guy(s), but you also have friction within the group trying to fend off the enemy. Here, Dicks ups that tension by adding a class division, with the rich, socially-advantaged being forced to rub shoulders with the “common” lighthouse staff. To make matters worse, one of the rich people desperately wants to get back to London to secure his investments, and is willing to take stupid risks to try to get in touch with the mainland.

This all makes for a good story that keeps us engaged. Even Leela exerts herself, much to the shock of the Edwardian gentry, though her enthusiasm for taking on their adversary with knives and whatever weapons they can find is, perhaps, a little excessive at times. Her comment about not being a “tesh-nician” is a nice throw-back to her first story, the “Tesh” being the brainy tribe from Leela’s home planet. All-in-all, this is a good Leela story, which is surprising since Terrance Dicks is a bit of a self-confessed chauvinist, and prefers his female companions screaming in peril for the Doctor to rescue them.

I thought the discussion between the lighthouse staff on the relative merits of electricity, oil, and other forms of lighting a lighthouse was a bit odd. It sounded as if Dicks wanted a place for all his lighthouse research to show, and so he stuck it in some dialog. Employing the Rutans as the enemy was a great idea (the Rutans were first mentioned in “The Time Warrior,” the first Sontaran story, when the Doctor mentions the interminable war between the Sontarans and the Rutans), and making them amorphous shape-shifters was clever too. Their realization on screen was, well, not so good, at least in my opinion.

“Horror of Fang Rock” is a good story, though not a classic. I wouldn’t consider it must-see Who, but certainly enjoyable, and not a waste of time. The Doctor and Leela are excellent, and there are some great lines (e.g., the Doctor, with a big grin, informing the occupants of the lighthouse, “Gentlemen, I have news for you: this lighthouse is under attack. By morning we might all be dead.”). One to watch if you have the time and opportunity.

Who Review: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

The Doctor takes Leela to late Victorian London with the intention of seeing a variety show at the theater. However, things take a different turn when they are the victims of an attempted ambush by a gang of Chinese men. All but one escapes and he, along with the Doctor and Leela, pay a visit to the police station. It’s there that they become involved in the investigation of missing girls, assisting Professor Litefoot, who has been conducting the autopsies. But this is no repeat of Jack the Ripper. Something sinister is happening at the theater, and the star of the show, Li H’sen Chang and his puppet Mr Sin seem to be involved. And they are not acting of their own accord. Chang believes himself to be in the service of the Chinese god Weng-Chiang. But who is this warped creature, and what does he want with the women of London? More than that, how can the Doctor and Leela stop him before he murders more people to serve his own ends?

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!

Rightly hailed by fans and critics alike as one of the best Doctor Who stories ever, this six-part serial completed the show’s fourteenth season, and also brought to an end Philip Hinchcliffe’s run as the show’s producer, a position he had occupied since Tom Baker’s first story, “Robot.” And what a story to go out on! Robert Holmes’s script is first rate, the pace is good, and the sets and lighting make for a wonderfully atmospheric and creepy story.

It seems as if Hinchcliffe and Holmes were going for a Phantom of the Opera meets Sherlock Holmes feel for the story. Some of the jumping around the theater rafters that the Doctor and Weng-Chiang perform echo “Phantom,” while the Doctor’s attire and demeanor, not to mention Professor Litefoot’s similarity to Dr. Watson, and the fact he has a housekeeper called Mrs. Hudson, certainly echoes the latter.

As well as atmosphere and drama, there’s plenty of humor, and some delightful character moments. For example, when Leela goes to dine with Litefoot, she immediately picks up food with her fingers to eat. Rather than scold her, Litefoot does the same. Later, Leela tries to give Litefoot a drink of port straight from the decanter. Tom Baker’s Doctor constantly rides a line between deadly seriousness and lighthearted unconcern, which makes him both disarming, and formidable. An excellent portrayal considering he’s supposed to be an alien. Also, despite the fact that the Fourth Doctor is “less violent,’ he spends a lot of time engaged in hand-to-hand combat with their Chinese attackers as if he was the Third Doctor!

There are a few iffy moments. The giant rat is almost successful, but not really successful enough to pass muster. Thankfully it has very limited screen time. Also, I thought using flashing lights over Chang’s eyes when he hypnotizes was a little overkill, and a bit hokey. Probably the most controversial aspect of the serial is the stereotypical way the Chinese are represented. Though, to be fair, this story is set in Victorian London, so there might be an element of truth to the Chinese gangs, and they way they dressed and acted at that time. More bothersome is the fact they got an Englishman to play the lead Chinese character, Li H’sen Chang. John Bennett does an excellent job with the part, but it would have been so much better if a real Chinese person could have been cast.

Far more successful is Mr Sin, Chang’s diminutive “puppet” who actually turns out to be a “Chinese homonculus” brought back by the creature posing as Weng-Chiang. He’s a “puppet” because he is, in fact, actually a robot with the cerebral cortex of a pig, making him a deadly hybrid. The costume and performance are well-realized, making for a thoroughly creepy character.

This is MUST-SEE Classic Who. No two ways about it. For me, in a season of classic stories, this and “Robots of Death” stand out. Excellent dialog, excellent story plotting, and just about everything else done to perfection (aside from the iffy moments noted above). If you have never seen “Talons” before, you’re in for a treat. 🙂

Who Review: The Robots of Death

New companion Leela’s first trip in the TARDIS winds up on a sandminer that’s exploring the minerals of a distant planet. The crew hope to pull enough valuable content from the planet into the vessel to make both themselves, and the company they work for, very rich. Many of the menial tasks on the sandminer are performed by humanoid robots. They do everything from piloting the craft, to heavy lifting, to giving massages to the weary crew, obeying their prime directive not to do harm to humans. The Doctor and Leela show up just as the bodies of two crew members turn up dead–strangled to death. Naturally, the newcomers are the first to be accused. However, it soon becomes apparent that the Doctor and Leela are innocent. But if they didn’t do it, and none of the humans on board did it, that only leaves one logical, and horrifying alternative. Indeed, that alternative would surely spell the end of that civilization, which is why no-one wants to listen to the Doctor, continuing to insist that the murderer is human. As the body count increases, the Doctor must find out who is overriding the robots’ programming, 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 Robots of Death” is without doubt one of my all-time favorite Classic Who serials. Part of my affection for it is sentimental, since I remember watching it the first time around. It made a huge impression on me as a seven-year-old Whovian–perhaps the closest I’ve come to literally hiding behind the sofa. The images I saw back then never left me; it’s one of the few Doctor Who stories from the Seventies of which I have vivid memories. When I introduced Doctor Who to my kids back in 2004, before there was a New Series, I chose “The Robots of Death” as their introductory story. It hooked them for life.

Why do I love this story? First, the story itself. Yes, it’s a classic locked-room murder mystery, with a nod perhaps to Agatha Christie, but it’s so well conceived and thought through. There’s no padding, with each scene either developing character or moving the story along. The script has lots of excellent Doctor and Leela interchange, humor, as well as tension and drama. Writer Chris Boucher also manages to weave world-building into the story, showing different classes of society, as well as orders of robot.

The acting is first-rate, too. Tom Baker lived the role so much, it’s hard for him not to nail every performance of the Doctor. Louise Jameson, playing Leela for only her second serial, seems to have found her voice. The supporting cast do a marvelous job, too, getting into character and selling the story, despite the strange costumes and make-up. I find the robots particularly convincing, the way they move and react.

Speaking of the robots… eeek! They creeped me out when I was seven, and they STILL creep me out. Those angular faces, and the eyes that turn red when they are switched to “kill” mode. What makes them so effective, though, is the combination of costume, movement, and voice. I’ve rarely seen all three done as well as they are here.

Some interesting continuity notes. At the beginning, Leela still has one of the guns from the previous story, “The Face of Evil.” She also complains that the Doctor talks like a “Tesh”–another “Face of Evil” nod, referring to the tribe on Leela’s home planet that descended from technicians. The Doctor’s explanation of “dimensionally transcendental,” when talking about how the TARDIS can be bigger on the inside, is quite entertaining.

I would like to nominate D-84 as the best robot companion (sort-of), even besting K9 and Kamelion. Seriously, though, for a robot, he has charm and personality without coming across too human. A great feat of scripting and voice acting.

My only complaint is that the ending is a bit abrupt. There’s no goodbye, simply off in the TARDIS and that’s it. A few minutes wishing Uvanov and Toos well would have been a nice come-down after the high tension of the last ten minutes. But that’s a very small quibble.

This is MUST-SEE Who. If you’ve never watched Classic Who, this is the one to start with. Indeed, if I could only own one Classic Who story, it would be “Robots of Death,” no question about it. I highly recommend it to Whovian and non-Whovian alike. If you don’t like this, don’t bother with Classic Who, because Classic Who doesn’t get much better.

Who Review: The Return of Doctor Mysterio

The Doctor is in New York City, trying to set traps around a device he made to reverse paradoxes he had caused, when he gets caught in his own trap and finds himself dangling 60 floors from the ground. He is rescued when a boy called Grant lets him into his room. Grant is a comic book fan, with a secret desire to be a super hero with super powers. When the Doctor gives him a glass of water, and tells him to hold a rare alien crystal, Grant mistakes the crystal for medicine, and swallows it with the water. It happens that this crystal has the power to give its owner their heart’s desire. The effects would last until the crystal passes through the ingester’s system, unless it binds with their DNA. Flash forward twenty-four years, and New York City is under threat by an alien race that wants to take over the bodies of world leaders. The Doctor returns, along with his new side-kick, Nardole, to meet this threat, but finds an unexpected ally in a masked super hero called The Ghost. The Doctor and Nardole need to find a way to stop this alien race before it’s too late. But will The Ghost be a help or a hindrance…?

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

The 2016 Christmas Special was written by show-runner Steven Moffat, and saw the return of Nardole from last year’s story, “The Husbands of River Song.” Unlike most previous Christmas specials, the fact it is Christmas is simply the pretext for why Grant lets the Doctor in through his window: when he asks his parents if he can let the strange man in, his parents consent, thinking it might be Santa. Otherwise, the rest of the story could have taken place any other time of the year. Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on your perspective. Some fans have grown tired of the overtly “Christmas-y” Christmas specials, and would like to see just a straight-up Who story on Christmas Day. However, there’s also the recognition that part of the reason for the seasonal nature of the special is the fact that British Christmas specials tend to be lighter fare, more comedic, and more geared toward broad family viewing. This explains why past Who specials tend not to be as heavy as the seasons that preceded them.

That said, one of the things that struck me with this year’s offering is how much the line between sci-fi and horror has blurred, and how much horror is acceptable for a broad “family” audience. The premise of the alien plan, transplanting brains, is fairly gruesome, but we’ve seen that kind of thing before in classic Who (“The Brain of Morbius” for example). The difference here is that the effects are better, and while we don’t actually see a brain transplant, we do see alien “brains” in jars, and a victim’s eye-less corpse. Granted, there’s no blood, but it’s still an unpleasant sight. And then there are the aliens themselves who can pull their heads open, with all the requisite slime, and goopy sound effects. These are images that would never have flown for tea-time family viewing on British TV 40 years ago. But how times have changed!

Of course, with any Steven Moffat script, things are not as they seem. The “Doctor Mysterio” in the title is not the name of the super hero, but is the name Grant gives to the Doctor. His “return” refers to the fact that the Doctor re-visits Grant 24 years after his initial encounter, when the young boy is a fully-fledged super hero, and dealing with the double life that is the bane of every super hero’s existence. Unlike previous Moffat scripts, there’s not a lot of subtle layering. Aside from the the relationship between Grant and Lucy Fletcher, whom he has loved since kindergarten, though she doesn’t know it, and the Doctor coming to terms with never seeing River Song again (see last year’s story), the rest of the story is pretty much what you see.

It’s a good story, well performed, with top-notch effects, but not remarkable. Worth watching, but not one I would get excited about. As the first new Who in a year, I’m not disappointed, but given it’s a Christmas special, my expectations weren’t super high to begin with. Maybe it’ll grow on me with re-watching. Of greater interest was the trailer for the up-coming season that ran at the end.

What did you think? Is there more to this story that I missed? Were you underwhelmed, or totally impressed? Let’s discuss…!

Who Review: The Face of Evil

The TARDIS materializes in a jungle, and the Doctor, now traveling alone, investigates. He doesn’t get far before a girl dressed in skins trips and lands at his feet. Her name is Leela, and she has been ejected from her tribe for blasphemy against their god, Xoanan. But Leela has seen the Doctor before–at least his face. He is “the evil one,” whose likeness is carved into the mountain. The Doctor’s curiosity piqued, he investigates Leela’s village and finds artifacts from a spaceship that the natives treat as sacred objects. The village shaman claims to receive messages from Xoanan, but the fact he receives them in a specific location suggests Xoanan uses some form of communicator. As the Doctor puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he comes to the conclusion that these savages are the descendants of a space crew that crash landed on the planet many generations ago. The Doctor visited an early generation of these people and helped them. But in helping them, he created a monster that is now determined to destroy everything. Starting with the Doctor.

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

The first Doctor Who serial of the New Year (1977) was written by a new writer for the show, Chris Boucher, and introduced a new companion, Leela. I have a vivid memory of watching the first episode of “The Face of Evil” when it broadcast. I was six, and we were visiting someone’s house on New Year’s Day. I don’t remember who it was we visited, but I do recall wanting to watch Doctor Who because there was going to be a new assistant (as we called them back then). Having been granted permission, I sat in our host’s living room in a large, beige comfy chair (it seemed large to me, anyway), and watched Leela’s inaugural episode on a big television. And that’s as much as I recall of that day.

Coming back to the story nearly forty years later, it’s another one of those Who serials that, I think, stands up very well. Boucher’s story is original, with a tight and engaging plot. He only wrote three stories for Doctor Who before going on to script editor success with shows like “Blake’s 7” and “Bergerac,” and it’s a shame; he was definitely one of the best Classic Who writers.

Boucher hasn’t given many interviews, and seems to be a bit of a recluse. I am aware of his rather devout atheism, and I think that bleeds through into the script (though the story had input from script editor Robert Holmes, and producer Philip Hinchcliffe). The idea of a technically advanced group of people who, over generations, become more “superstitious” is, however, counter-intuitive to most atheist thinking. Normally, secular anthropologists say that people, over time, grow less “religious,” with secularism being equated with progress, as primitive people shake off the shackles of naïve beliefs and embrace the “real world” as explained by reason and science. Perhaps this anomaly is due to the influence of Xoanan and his social experiment? Did Xoanan affect the generations that came from that initial crew such that technology and science wasn’t passed down to them, and they all grew up ignorant? I find that possibly the hardest aspect of the plot to swallow. Surely each generation would have taught the next, and given we’re talking about a limited number of people, it’s unlikely they would have “forgotten” so completely their history. Such things would have been passed down as more than just ritual. They would have been taught how to use the Medikit, and the rest of the surviving equipment.

In any case, this back story gives Boucher the opportunity to parody religion, though he’s careful to keep it general, and largely animistic, as opposed to taking on, say, Christianity or Islam too directly. Nevertheless, faith is firmly put in its place (as Boucher sees it), subservient to science and reason. I could get offended at this, but the serial is a work of fiction, so I can take it all at face value and enjoy it for what it is.

The subtle mocking of faith aside, this is a clever story. We have a tribe called the Sevateem, who were originally the Survey Team, but over time the name was corrupted. Xoanan, in his experiment, set them apart to develop their warrior instincts. Back on the ship live the Tesh, who were originally the Technicians, the technical crew, whom Xoanan kept on the ship to develop their mental skills. Xoanan’s plan was to see which turned out to be the superior tribe.

As for the identity of Xoanan, this is another clever and original plot twist. Xoanan is a highly sophisticated computer that the Tesh, over many years, developed to be independently intelligent. When the Doctor visited the first time, Xoanan was in need of repair, and to effect the cure he had to use his own mental energy. He thought he had fixed the computer, but it seems he had inadvertently left his own mental print behind. Xoanan, therefore, developed a dual personality, which drove it insane. The nearest thing we’ve had to a situation like this in any previous Doctor Who story is the First Doctor serial, “The Ark,” where, at the end of episode two it looks as if our heroes have saved the day, only to return some years later to find that they’ve actually made the situation worse.

Leela’s character is supposed to be intelligent, but technically ignorant. In other words, she has street smarts, and a rational mind, even if she doesn’t know a lot of facts. She has both the hunter’s instinct, and the ability to take information and form conclusions. A rather unusual traveling companion for the Doctor, which, perhaps, makes her most suitable.

Another interesting twist on the usual Doctor Who plot is the fact that the Doctor didn’t have to stay. For most of the first half of the story, he could have escaped back into the jungle, jumped in the TARDIS and left. But he doesn’t, and I think behind his decision to put things right is a sense of responsibility. It was his fault the computer turned out a mentally disturbed wannabe-god, so it’s up to him to fix it.

One little plot point that bugged me was how the Medikit was still functional after so many generations, and how the Doctor knew all the chemicals and medicines it used would still be viable. It seems the Medikit has not needed to be recharged for many, many years, and yet the guns can only carry a charge good enough for a finite number of shots before they need to be powered up again. The logic of that evaded me for all four episodes.

An interesting detail I noticed was at the end, when Xoanan makes a couch and table materialize for the Doctor and Leela to sit on while they talk. The Doctor picks up a cigarette box from the table, and inside he finds jelly babies. Many years later, in the Twelfth Doctor story, “Mummy on the Orient Express,” the Doctor will pull a cigarette case from his inside coat pocket, open it, and take out a jelly baby.

This is a great story, though perhaps just shy of “must-see.” I would certainly recommend it to all Whovians, and even perhaps to those with a less fanatical interest in the show.

Who Review: The Deadly Assassin

Having dropped Sarah Jane Smith off safely on Earth, the Doctor continues to Gallifrey, responding to a summons from the Time Lords. Before he arrives, he has a vivid premonition of the Time Lord President’s assassination. Sneaking past the guards who have come to greet him–to all but the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency), the Doctor is still a renegade–the Doctor steals some robes and mingles with the crowd awaiting the appearance of the President to give his resignation speech and announce his successor. Up in the gallery, where the proceedings are being filmed, the Doctor sees a gun, and the shadow of the assassin. He runs to apprehend the criminal, but the mystery man escapes. The Doctor grabs the gun intending to take him out, but instead shoots the President. Immediately, the Doctor is apprehended and accused of murder. Despite his protestations, his guilt seems undeniable. With only hours until his trial, inevitable conviction, and execution, the Doctor must somehow prove his innocence, and uncover the real master behind the plot…

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 the first time in the show’s history, the Doctor works alone, without a companion. Tom Baker had, apparently, put in a request for a serial where it’s just him and no assistant. Always willing to try something different, and at a point in the series where the Doctor is between companions, the production team granted Baker’s wish.

The story was written by script editor, and one of the finest Who writers of the era (if not period), Robert Holmes. It seems to be quite heavily influenced by the 1959 book (later adapted into a movie) THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, in which a couple of US Korean War soldiers are captured, taken to Gallifrey, and tricked into assassinating the Time Lord President. No, wait–I mean, they are taken to Manchuria, and programmed to obey commands that they subsequently forget whenever they see a certain playing card, all to the ultimate goal of assassinating the Time Lord President a candidate for the US Presidency, and bringing Communism to Gallifrey. I mean America.

Much of “Deadly Assassin”‘s appeal is the way that Holmes takes the concept of the Time Lords, and the little tidbits of information we’ve been given so far, and runs with it. In this story, we’re introduced to the various ranks of Time Lord, the Presidency, the Panopticon, the Sash of Rassilon, the Eye of Harmony, artron energy–all ideas and elements of Time Lord lore that the show would come back to, not just in the Classic Series, but in the New Series too.

Perhaps the most important Time Lord idea Robert Holmes saddles the show with is that they can only regenerate twelve times. This was something that didn’t seem too much of a problem for Doctor number four. Who knew we’d ever surpass that number of incarnations for the Doctor? Clearly Holmes smiled a devilish smile, and decided it could be someone else’s problem long after he was gone. Which it was (see “The Time of the Doctor” for Steven Moffat’s resolution to the issue).

There are a lot of great things about this story. The Matrix as a data store of all Time Lord life, into which a conscious mind could enter and go through these wild virtual reality scenes, was quite a novel idea for the time. And it’s marvelously realized on film, using “natural” effects (rock fall, gunshot, etc.), and some great acting from Tom Baker and Bernard Horsfall. Castellan Spandrell, the firm but funny Germanic security officer who is first to side with the Doctor and help him prove his case, comes off a little wooden, but he’s too likable to fault. And the cliffhangers are good, so good they got the show into trouble–especially episode three’s where the Doctor’s head is being held under water.

The political references aren’t far from the surface, either. And I’m not referring to the fact that Borusa looks (and sounds) like former UK Prime Minister David Cameron. The revelation that Time Lord politics is as corrupt as politics elsewhere perhaps betrays some of the mid-70s cynical and conspiratorial attitude toward government, especially US government (post-JFK, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate). As if to underscore this, we have the Doctor complaining that “vaporization without representation” is “unconstitutional.”

The story reveals in Episode 1 that the baddie behind everything, who accessed the Matrix, summoned the Doctor, and fed him his premonitions, was the Master. He is at the end of his life, and wants to use the symbols of the President’s office to access the Eye of Harmony so he can have power to regenerate, and destroy Gallifrey, too. He evidently feels a bit bitter. He doesn’t look well at all, either. He’s barely a skeleton with a layer of shiny flesh. The mask and costume is quite effective, especially for 1976, and maybe a little much for early evening television. At the end of the story, the Master escapes and takes his bony self off in his TARDIS, which looks like an old grandfather clock. That will become important in five years. 🙂

The thing I like least about “The Deadly Assassin” is the voice-over introduction. Doctor Who had never done that before, and hasn’t done it since (I don’t think). For good reason. It’s hokey and cheesey, and better done by working that backstory into the dialog.

That said, this is must-see Doctor Who for any Whovian. It’s a great story, and it stands up pretty well even today. But that aside, it’s this vision of Time Lord society that has persisted to the present. So if you really want to understand the role of the Time Lords in Doctor Who, this story is essential. But, as I said, it’s a really good serial, too!

Who Review: The Hand of Fear

The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Sarah to a quarry on Earth, just before a rock face detonates burying Sarah. Thankfully, the rocks fall around her creating a protective shelter, so she is unharmed. Nevertheless, she is shaken by the experience, and an ambulance carts her to hospital. When the Doctor arrives to check on her, she is recovering well, but seems rather attached to a petrified hand. She was gripping it so tightly when the medics found her, they had to relax her hand to get it free. Under analysis, the hand appears to be some kind of crystallized life form, with a type of DNA unknown on Earth. What they don’t yet realize is that the hand wore a ring that put Sarah under its mesmeric power. As soon she gets an opportunity, she grabs the hand and escapes from the hospital. The hand needs power, and Sarah will find a way to give it the power it needs. Once the hand is infused with sufficient energy, it will regenerate into its true form. But its craving for power could create a nuclear disaster. And if it’s that powerful when it’s just a hand, what will it be like when it has completed its transformation…?

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 BBC had announced earlier in 1976 that Elisabeth Sladen would be leaving the show, so audiences knew they would be saying goodbye to Sarah Jane Smith. It seems a little odd, however, to have the companion leave part-way through the season. Conventional wisdom says you wait until the end of the season for a major cast change like that. Nevertheless, “The Hand of Fear” marks the last time we get to see the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith on screen together. That in itself is sad, since they work so well together. But let’s talk about the story first.

“The Hand of Fear” starts with backstory, as we see Kastria about to expire due to solar winds, but not before the Kastriam leadership detonates a prisoner ship carrying a notorious criminal, Eldrad. The resulting explosion scatters Eldrad’s crystalline body parts throughout the galaxy. One part, a hand, lands on Earth. Millions of years later, that hand has become encased in rock, which is released in the quarry explosion that buries Sarah Jane. I wondered whether this prologue was necessary, or whether the story could have started with the TARDIS arriving in the quarry. While that’s a lot of backstory to try to fit in elsewhere, it does tip us off to the fact that Eldrad is a condemned prisoner. It might have been better for us to discover along with the Doctor Eldrad’s true intent. But that’s a minor quibble. Classic Who likes to do these scene-setting prologues, so it’s nothing strange.

The quarry in which the TARDIS materializes is, for once, an actual quarry doubling as a quarry! Sarah Jane is wearing an outfit that fans refer to as her “Andy Pandy” outfit (Dr. Carter uses the same terminology to describe her overalls in Part 1). For those unfamiliar with Andy Pandy, he was a marionette character who was a favorite with British children in the 1950s and 1970s. Andy wore a striped onesie, which is the basis of the comparison with Sarah’s overalls. On reflection, there really isn’t much else that’s similar, so the reference is not so much based on the fact Andy Pandy wore red striped overalls–he didn’t. But Andy Pandy’s clothes are suggested by Sarah’s outfit. See for yourself:

Once again, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are superb. Once again Sladen plays under-the-influence Sarah to perfection. Indeed, her performance in this serial is cruel; at least if she had been terrible, it wouldn’t have been so sad to see her go. As it is, she leaves very big shoes for her successor to fill, and an audience of fans wondering how anyone can replace her.

I thought the hand in the plastic box was well done, and female Eldrad’s costume was good, though it would have equally suited a 70s disco. I could have expected it to turn up in an Amii Stewart video.

Of the two Eldrads in the story, Female Eldrad, played by Judith Paris, is undoubtedly the better one. Stephen Thorne’s male Eldrad is a bit too shouty and all one note, whereas Judith’s Eldrad is more nuanced–defensive to begin with, then sympathetic and agreeable, at least until she gets what she wants.

Most fans find the first three episodes to be the best, with the plot going sour in the fourth episode. Broadly speaking I agree, though I like the surprise twist for Eldrad: the Kastrians have chosen death, so when Eldrad returns to conquer and rule, he ends up “Eldrad, ruler of… nothing!” But then he wants to go back to Earth as its god and conqueror, an ambition the Doctor and Sarah put an end to by tripping him up with the Doctor scarf, sending him into a bottomless abyss. There’s something a little unsatisfying about that. I think I expected more of a battle at the end.

The closing scene was, apparently, written by Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. When Sarah goes off on her “fed up” rant, I totally understand. Over the past season and a bit, she has been possessed more than once, been hypnotized, and had her life threatened by creatures of all kinds. Oh for a quiet, normal life! But, as she points out in the Tenth Doctor story, “School Reunion,” how could she ever return to a “normal” life after her time in the TARDIS? It’s a heartbreaking scene, and, once more, played very convincingly. Without incidental music, I might add, which means the emotion comes entirely from the actors.

I have to wonder why Sarah wasn’t allowed to go to Gallifrey with the Doctor. That’s not really ever explained, other than the hint that humans are not allowed, which is clearly not true since Leela will go to Gallifrey with the Doctor at the end of the following season. And what’s all this guff about receiving “the call of the Time Lords” which “I must obey.” Since when did the Doctor obey the call of the Time Lords–at least willingly the first time? Remember “The War Games”?

For the fact that this is Sarah Jane’s last story, I suppose the Whovian ought to watch it. However, I hold back from calling this must-see Who. It’s good, and you’ll be entertained by it, but it’s hardly on the same level as some of the other stories this season.

Who Review: The Masque of Mandragora

On a tour of the TARDIS, Sarah discovers a wood paneled room the Doctor identifies as a second console room. While smaller than the main console room, he is equally able to operate the TARDIS from there. The Doctor opens the viewscreen, only to see that they are being dragged into the Mandragora Helix by the intelligence within it. Forced to land in the Helix, they managed to avoid its power and escape, but not before an element of the Helix stows away with them. The Doctor and Sarah next find themselves in fifteenth century San Marino, Italy. As the Duke of San Marino lies dying, the Duke’s brother, Federico, is making a grab for power, even though the Duke’s son, Giulliano, is the rightful heir. Federico is assisted in his efforts by the court astrologer, Hieronymous, whose predictions of death–the Duke’s in particular–are eerily accurate. Giulliano is a man of science at the dawn of the Renaissance, so he has no time for Hieronymous’s superstition. However, the Helix has other plans. Using Hieronymous as its vehicle, the Helix wants to prevent the Renaissance from happening, driving Earth’s Western civilization back into the Dark Ages. As leader of a religious cult, Hieronymous serves as a useful vessel for making this happen, so that the Helix can then rule all mankind through this superstition. Unless the Doctor 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!

First, let’s clear up a couple of things that threw me to begin with. It’s “Masque” not “Mask.” A masque is a form of entertainment popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that included drama and dancing, notably with the use of masks. This kind of festivity is key to the climax of the story, since the Helix plans its takeover during the masque to celebrate Giulliano’s succession to the Dukedom. Also “Mandragora” is pronounced mandragora, not mandragora.

This serial was a bold start to season fourteen, what with a new title font, and a new console room. Speaking of the “new” console room, it was a nice change, though it only persisted for this season. That natural look has attracted a lot of fan love over the years, which may account for the return to a more organic style console room for the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Doctors. There’s even a nod to the show’s recent past with a Third Doctor style shirt and jacket on a chair, and a recorder, favored instrument of the Second Doctor, that Sarah picks up and plays.

An underlying theme of “Masque” is the challenge to “superstition” brought about by Renaissance “science”–such as it was. I’m not sure that the distinction was quite so sharp, since Renaissance men considered themselves, for the most part, still men of faith. However, the clash makes for good drama, so I think we can live with it here. And the “superstition” that’s mocked in this story is a fictitious cult, so there’s little to cause offense (unless you’re an astrologer who regularly predicts the demise of the rich and powerful).

It’s a good story. Not great, but good solid drama, with elements of humor (unavoidable with the Fourth Doctor), and a fairly tight, pacy plot. The location shooting is particularly good, making the most of the same Portmeirion location in Wales that was used to film the popular Sixties series, “The Prisoner.” There’s a lot of Renaissance Italian architecture, so it’s not hard to fake the period and location with some careful camera work, and some oranges attached to the trees.

During the story, Sarah is drugged and hypnotized. Once again, Elisabeth Sladen’s performance is superb, giving a slight, almost unnoticeable nuance to Sarah that suggests she’s not quite herself. I thought it interesting that the Doctor knew she was under the influence because she asked how she could understand Italian, an odd question to ask now after all the places they had visited. I thought Giulliano’s mention of her dilated pupils would have tipped him off well before that. The Doctor’s answer to her question is the first time in the show’s history the subject is broached–and I’m sure this had bugged Who fans for 13 years. He tells Sarah that the ability to understand and be understood no matter where they are is a “Time Lord gift” that the Doctor shares with her. The subject won’t be broached again until Rose asks the Ninth Doctor in “The End of the World,” where he tells her it’s something the TARDIS does for her.

The finale seems a bit rushed, and you have to be paying attention to follow what’s happening. The Doctor’s plan is to use wire wrapped around the cult’s altar to draw off the Helix’s energy when the cult gathers for worship. The Helix is already stretched energy-wise by occupying all the “Brethren” as well as Hieronymous. By wearing protective armor and taunting Hieronymous to shoot energy bolts at him, the Doctor furthers weakens it. At least, that’s my understanding. The energy-bolt-from-the-fingers effect used with the Brethren looks like the same effect used in “Planet of the Spiders,” only improved.

I’m curious to know how Sarah learned fifteenth century dance moves so quickly. When Tegan launches into The Charleston in the Fifth Doctor story, “Black Orchid,” at least she says she learned it in school. Where, and why, would Sarah Jane Smith have learned popular masque dances? I’m also curious to know why the lunar eclipse seems to be happening so quickly. The episode three cliffhanger, however, is very good, where Hieronymous removes his mask to reveal nothing but light. And those masks are pretty creepy.

To sum up, “The Masque of Mandragora” is a good story, and will keep you entertained. It’s not a must-see, and not the greatest, but better than many.

Who Review: The Seeds of Doom

In his capacity as U.N.I.T. chief scientific advisor, the Doctor has been called by the World Ecology Bureau to look into a strange pod discovered by a team of scientists at an Antarctic base. The photographs suggest something alien, so the Doctor and Sarah go to Antarctica to see the pod for themselves, warning no-one to touch it. When they arrive, the pod has already hatched and attacked one of the scientists, Winlett. He is beginning to take on the appearance of some kind of plant. The Doctor finds a second pod, which seems to confirm for him what they are dealing with: Krynoids. Before long, Winlett is no longer recognizable as a human, his whole body having been transformed by the infection. He is now a powerful and dangerous Krynoid.

Meanwhile, millionaire botanist Harrison Chase has heard about the pod discovery, and sends two mercenaries to Antarctica to recover it for his plant collection. His instructions are for them to bring back the pod, no matter what cost. The two thugs, Scorby and Keeler, are too late to get the first pod, but manage to make off with the second, leaving the Doctor and Sarah to deal with the hungry Winlett-Krynoid. But that’s the least of their concerns. Once that second pod reaches London, warms, and then hatches, not only will it infect the nearest humans, but it will turn all plant life on Earth against the planet’s fleshy occupants.

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 first thing I need to get off my chest with regard to “The Seeds of Doom” is the title. I hate it. First, I keep calling it “The Seeds of Death,” which is a Second Doctor Ice Warrior story. And second, in fiction I associate the word “doom” with melodrama, and a somewhat comical overtone–“Arrrgh! We’re all doomed!” This story is far from comical. Indeed, to me the word “doom” doesn’t do justice to this dark, and somewhat disturbing, story. At least it’s disturbing in concept, given a few plot holes and a couple of effects that don’t quite work. How about “The Pods of Death” or “The Curse of the Krynoids”? Even just “The Krynoids” would have been better than “The Seeds of Doom”!

Broadcast over February and March of 1976, “The Seeds of Death Doom” was the last story of season 13, and hence the dialog at the end where the Doctor and Sarah talk about taking a holiday. It was written by Robert Banks Stewart, who wrote the season opener, “Terror of the Zygons.” The original plan was for “Terror” to be the season 12 closing story, so Stewart would have written the last story for both seasons. However, “Terror” was pushed to the next season, so he ended up top-and-tailing season 13.

U.N.I.T. involvement in Who has been petering out over the past few seasons. This story marks the last time we see any U.N.I.T. soldiers until 1989, and the Seventh Doctor story, “Battlefield.” And even here, U.N.I.T. are not really central to the story, and none of the U.N.I.T. regulars make an appearance. Their inclusion seems to be primarily to give the Doctor an excuse to be there, and to provide some support later on.

While the production team don’t say so explicitly, it’s hard to imagine “DeathDoom” wasn’t at least partly inspired by the classic BBC TV series, “The Quatermass Experiment.” In that series, a space crew returns to Earth bringing with them an alien life that has taken over one of the astronauts, and is turning him into a plant-like creature that then threatens the planet. Somewhat similar. 🙂

All joking aside, “The Seeds of DeeeDoooo…Deaoooom” is a good story. Most of the visual effects work, and the acting is good, at least from the main cast. The Doctor and Sarah are, as always, a delight to watch, but a special shout-out needs to go to Tony Beckley, who played Harrison Chase. Wonderfully sinister, plant-obsessed, and dispassionate about anything else, including humans. Probably the worst effect was the final Krynoid form for which it seems they re-purposed the Axon costume from the 1971 story, “The Claws of Axos.” Back then, it worked fine in the context of that story. But here, it just looks a little silly, especially after the good transformation make-up we’d seen previously. And having the Krynoid talk, giving our heroes an ultimatum to give up the Doctor or die, was a bit of a stretch. I understand why they did it–they needed to give a reason why the Krynoid doesn’t attack and destroy them all immediately. But to suddenly have this silent menace announce its plans in booming clear English didn’t sit well with me.

The violence in this story is quite surprising for 1970s Doctor Who. There’s nothing graphic, but you have the Doctor hitting people, knocking them unconscious. Then there are the plant creatures strangling people to death. And, perhaps the most implicitly gruesome, is the “grinder”–the machine Chase uses to mince up all kinds of refuse to make plant food. He puts the Doctor in it at one point, but, of course, the Doctor escapes. Chase also tries to have Sarah ground, but the Doctor rescues her. One of the soldiers was not so fortunate, and neither was Chase himself in the end. We hear screams. We see the wheels turning. The Doctor looks away and shield’s Sarah’s face. But that’s enough to let our imaginations do the rest. The BBC received complaints, but in a way that was a compliment to how effective it was.

One quite major plot hole that bothered me concerned the fact that the Krynoid would cause all plants in the area to attack the non-plant life. Would that not include the grass, of which there are copious amounts, and over which people are constantly running? Could the Krynoid not have easily thwarted the plans of those attacking it by having the grass, the trees, the flowers, and all the other foliage rise up against them? Granted, that wouldn’t have helped in the end, since it was a bombing attack from the air that dealt the death-blow to the Krynoid. And given that was how the first Krynoid was killed, when the Antarctic base was blown up, you might have thought they’d have come up with that solution sooner.

The last issue I have is the ending. After all the death and destruction, it seems in bad taste to be joking about going on vacation, and acting as if innocent lives hadn’t just been brutally lost. But that’s not unusual for Classic Who. Children’s programming back then didn’t like to dwell on such things. The bad guys lost, and while brave souls gave their lives in the process, the good guys won, and so we celebrate and make merry.

All in all, “The Seeds of DoodeadoodeDoom” is a good serial, and worthy of your time. Not must-see, like some of the others this season, but definitely worth watching.

One last thing. In an inspired piece of casting, Hargreaves is played by Seymour Green. 🙂

Who Review: The Brain of Morbius

The Doctor and Sarah emerge from the TARDIS on the planet Karn, a planet the Doctor knows well because he was born nearby–relatively speaking. Much to his annoyance, the Doctor suspects the Time Lords have diverted him here to investigate something. Sarah finds the remains of wrecked ships, and a decapitated mutant creature. Then a thunderstorm forces them to take shelter in a nearby castle. There they are received by Dr. Mehendri Solon, master surgeon, and his assistant, Condo. Solon’s admiration of the Doctor’s head is of passing interest. The fact he has a bust of renegade Time Lord Morbius is more concerning. Morbius was executed by the Time Lords for his despicable crimes, and thought dead. But it seems his brain survived, and now Dr. Solon, a fully-fledged member of the Cult of Morbius,  is creating a new body for him, if only he can find a suitable head. And what more fitting head for a Time Lord brain than that of a fellow Time Lord? The Doctor, aided by the Sisterhood of Karn, must stop Solon before he uses the Doctor’s head to resurrect one of the most evil criminals the universe has known…

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!

Robert Holmes does Frankenstein in another classic Classic Who story. Originally penned by former script editor Terrance Dicks, changes needed to be made due to budget constraints. However, Dicks was on holiday, so Holmes went ahead with his rewrites and polishes. When Dicks read the final script, it was so far removed from his original vision, he asked his name to be removed. In anger, he told Holmes to credit it to “some bland name.” Following BBC rules, Holmes couldn’t be listed as script editor and writer, so he took Dicks’s advice and used the authorial pseudonym “Robin Bland.”

All the elements of the Frankenstein movies are there: the musty old castle, the strangers taking shelter from a thunderstorm, the mad professor, his strong but simple assistant, and, of course, the monster, stitched together by the professor’s own hands. The twist here is that the monster needs a head, and good ones are hard to come by. So the monster lies dormant, while Morbius’s brain sits in a jar of green goo, waiting for its new body.

This story introduces us to the Sisterhood of Karn, a mystic sect of women who guard a sacred flame that gives them the elixir of life. This elixir gives the ladies longevity, a gift they accuse the Time Lords of trying to steal from them. When the Doctor turns up, they immediately accuse him of being sent by the Time Lords to take their elixir. It takes a good amount of the story for the Doctor to convince them that Time Lords only need the elixir in emergency situations, and he is actually there to help. Initially it seems the Sisterhood don’t really serve much story purpose, and are there simply for padding. However, they become embroiled in the plot as Solon tries to persuade them to leave the Doctor’s head for him after they execute him. Later, they help with the Doctor’s rescue, since they are just as opposed to Morbius’s return as the Time Lords. At the end of the story, with the Doctor perilously close to death, the Sisterhood give him the last of the elixir that he might live.

For Classic Who fans, it was a double delight when, in 2013, Steven Moffatt not only brought back the Eighth Doctor for a special mini episode, “The Night of the Doctor,” but he brought him back to Karn. There the Sisterhood again save his life by giving him elixir, this time prompting a regeneration into the “War Doctor.”

It seems redundant for me to say how good the performances are, because for the most part, the main cast of Doctor Who always do really well. But here in particular, we have the inimitable Philip Madoc as Solon, with all the charm and manic overtones his character demands. Of course the Doctor and Sarah (Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen) are wonderful to watch, playing off each other so well. I think Sladen was an underrated actress in her day. She plays Sarah Jane Smith with such conviction and humanity, reacting to even the most incredible situations so convincingly.

Condo is an interesting character. If Robert Holmes had kept Terrance Dicks’s original scripts, there would be no Condo. Condo seems like a brute, but he softens to Sarah, objecting to Solon’s demands that he kill her. He lacks an arm that Solon has promised to replace when he has finished with Morbius. When he sees that Solon used his arm for the Morbius monster, he turns on his master. These are lovely twists of character that add depth to the story.

Dicks’s biggest objection to Holmes’s changes was something about which, I must admit, he’s right. Namely, if Mehendri Solon is the greatest surgeon in the universe, why did he do such a bad job with the Morbius monster? While that’s an important point, it’s easy to come up with reasons why his Morbius body is such a mess (lack of decent parts, inadequate materials, unsatisfactory working environment, Solon’s addled mind, etc.). Perhaps another plot hole that’s glossed over is the fact that when the Doctor challenges Morbius to a Time Lord “mind bend,” Solon just happens to have the appropriate equipment set up and ready for them in his laboratory! What would Solon have used this for?

All-in-all, this is another must-see Classic Who story. There’s humor (Solon’s line regarding Morbius: it will be “my crowning achievement–sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.”), and great design ideas, like having the brain hooked up to a stretched vocal cord membrane, which is connected to an amplifier, thus enabling Morbius to speak from his jar. And then there’s the infamous mind bending contest, where we see regenerations prior to the First Doctor. Fans have found ways of reconciling that with the later revelation that Time Lords have only 13 lives, but at the time, the intention was that the faces flashing past were all the Doctor.

There is some rather graphic violence, when Solon shoots Condo, and we see blood spurt out. This is very unusual for Doctor Who in any era, even today, and the BBC received complaints at the time. It does reflect, however, the darker, edgier feel the production team were trying to bring to the show, expanding it beyond the domain of children to draw in older members of the family. I think they succeeded.

Buy the DVD. Watch it online. Whatever, no Whovian should miss this one!