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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!

Who Review: Inferno

The Doctor has been called to join a team of expert consultants for a project nicknamed “Inferno,” a project for which U.N.I.T. is providing security. “Inferno” aims to drill into the Earth’s crust, releasing “Stahlman’s gas” that can be used as a powerful fuel source. Professor Stahlman resents the presence of these consultants whom he considers over-cautious hindrances to his project. The Doctor doesn’t much like Professor Stahlman and his over-confident, high-handed arrogance. If it wasn’t for the fact he is being given access to nuclear power for his own experiments (he’s trying to “fix” the TARDIS), the Doctor would leave. As the drill approaches the Earth’s crust, machine failures, computer warnings, and a strange green slime oozing from the drill entry point alarm the consultants. Ignoring their protests, Stahlman insists on pushing on. But the slime is more than just a toxic by-product; it infects all who come in contact with it, transforming them into high-energy monsters. The Earth is fighting back, but will the Doctor be able to persuade Professor Stahlman to abandon his project 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 final story of the season is yet another seven-parter. Script Editor/Producer team Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts didn’t like the seven-part format, but had been lumbered with it from the previous production team. It seems obvious to me both here, and in the previous two stories, that they struggled to stretch stories to fill the time. Some of the “filler” is painfully apparent (see “Doctor Who and the Silurians”), but I think “Inferno” manages to expand the story in a way that gives it an interesting twist, and pushes the story forward.

“Inferno” begins with a formula we’ve already seen a few times up to this point in Who history, where a project goes awry but the person in charge is too stubborn and arrogant to admit fault and stop (see “The Ice Warriors” and “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” for example). There’s plenty of dramatic tension as the Doctor threatens to walk out, government ministers get involved, and an expert oil driller tries to convince Stahlman’s loyal assistant, Dr. Petra Williams, to slow the project. But it’s all to no avail.

The Doctor’s TARDIS experiments land him and Bessie (his car) in an alternate universe. In this world, the Brigadier is a Brigade Leader, Liz Shaw is a Section Leader (not a scientist), and Director Stahlmann is further along in the “Inferno” project, though just as determined to see things through despite the warnings from the computer, the green ooze, and the equipment failures. This excursion into a parallel world clearly exists to stretch a four-part story into seven parts, but it’s not a pointless diversion. We get to see a world that could have been, where Britain is under fascist rule, and “Inferno” is being run as a scientific labor camp. The Brigade Leader has a scar and an eye patch, and commands his men with an iron fist. Rather than questioning her superior officer, Elizabeth Shaw falls in line with him. The fact that this parallel project is further along allows the Doctor (and us) to see what happens when the warnings are ignored. “Primords” (the name given in the end titles to the creatures created when the slime infects people) attacking, earthquakes, lava running through the streets, and eventually the end of life on Earth. When the Doctor manages to return to his “normal” world, he sounds the alarm with a lot more authority. He can rally people to his side by convincing them that he has seen how this all plays out, and it’s not good.

One plot hole people often point to is the fact that while we have alternate versions of the Brigadier, Liz, Sergeant Benton, Professor Stahlman, and all the others, there isn’t an alternate version of the Doctor. This could be explained by saying in this universe, the Doctor wasn’t exiled to Earth, so he simply wasn’t there for this. It does seem unlikely though, given the number of times the Doctor has been around to save the Earth from destruction, that he wouldn’t be there this time. Alternatively, this could be a universe in which the Doctor never left his home planet. Since the Doctor insists that he can’t take the Brigade Leader back with him because it would create a devastating paradox, that idea would be undermined if he were to meet his alternate self in this world.

When the Doctor realizes he is in an alternate universe, created as a result of people making different choices, it dawns on him that many similar universes must exist, and that “free will isn’t an illusion.” This is an interesting point for the series to make since it either justifies the idea that the Doctor and his companions must not interfere in history, since they could change things (see “The Aztecs”), or it means it doesn’t matter if the Doctor changes history in one universe, because somewhere there’s a universe in which the Doctor didn’t change history. It also casts a question over the New Series’ obsession over “fixed points in time”–which time line? If there are infinite parallel universes, are the “fixed points in time” the same in all of them? Surely not, since those things might not have even happened in some of those universes. This “free will” line of the Doctor’s is all the more fascinating because it’s a throw-away line. It doesn’t impact this story, so it’s not necessary for the plot. It’s simply the Doctor ruminating on his situation. That opens the possibility that the Doctor later learns about “fixed points in time” and modifies his view. But it’s an interesting discussion point for the show, nonetheless. 🙂

Must-see Who? I would say, if you had to pick one story out of the four from this season, it would be “Spearhead from Space.” But if you had to pick one of the three 7-part stories to watch, it would be this one. While it could have been a 4-parter, they’ve made it work as a 7-parter more successfully (I think). Not essential Who, but good Who.

Who Review: The Ambassadors of Death

The British space program is concerned about their astronauts aboard Mars Probe Seven. They lost contact with them eight months ago. With U.N.I.T. providing security, the team at the Space Centre (it’s British) sends up Recovery Seven probe in an attempt to make contact with the silent vessel. The Doctor and Liz get involved when a strange noise comes across the airwaves from space. Convinced it’s not a random wave pattern, the Doctor tells the team to expect a reply. Sure enough, they pick up a message going into space from Earth. Meanwhile, Recovery Seven returns to Earth, but by the time it gets back to the Space Centre, it is empty. The Doctor doesn’t think the astronauts were on board, and he may be right. But there were life forms in Recovery Seven, and someone is using them for their own deadly purposes…

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 Ambassadors of Death” was the second of three seven-part adventures that made up the Third Doctor’s first season. It aired between March and May of 1970, and featured the first appearance of the “sting”–that screamy eeeeerrrrr sound that would precede the end titles of every episode of Doctor Who up to the present day.

The story was initially written by David Whitaker, one of my favorite Who writers of the 1960s. He had originally written the story back in 1968 for the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe, but now had to re-write it for the Third Doctor, Liz Shaw, and U.N.I.T. It seems he had a lot of difficulty with this new format, so in the end, Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke, and Trevor Ray essentially re-wrote it based on Whitaker’s basic story-line.

While this kind of emergency, last-minute script writing worked for “The War Games,” I don’t think it worked nearly as well here. Maybe it was the added pressure of adapting Whitaker’s ideas, I don’t know, but the story has numerous holes, and a lot of padding. This could easily have been a four-part story, but for some reason they were wedded to the idea of a seven-parter. Dicks has alluded to the fact that the new production team inherited a lot of script issues, so maybe they were forced to stretch the stories because they had so few of them ready? In any case, what we end up with is a good story idea rather clumsily handled.

Here are some of the more glaring problems I found with the story:

  • The warehouse shoot-out was way too long, and could easily have been cut.
  • The fake U.N.I.T. soldier brings a radioactive isotope to a prisoner. The isotope is on a metal tray under a lid, and the soldier is not wearing protective gloves. Surely he’s as likely to be affected by the radiation as the prisoner?
  • The bad guys use a directional control to tell the aliens which way to go, and this is the only way they can communicate with them. Yet somehow, they are able to get the aliens to travel to a man’s office, murder him, and destroy the contents of his safe. How did the baddies tell the aliens to do all that?
  • Later in the story, the Doctor manages to create a machine that allows bi-directional communication with the aliens. Through this, the aliens ask, “Why do you make us kill?” These aliens are clearly more powerful than their captors. Why did they feel obliged to act against their will?
  • U.N.I.T. shows itself to be the most incompetent military outfit on the planet. Especially in the early gun fights they remind me more of “Dad’s Army” [sorry, British TV reference–look it up!] than a crack squad of soldiers. Why on Earth anyone would call in U.N.I.T. for security is beyond me, given their performance in this story!
  • So Much Padding! And by “padding” I mean scenes that simply serve to fill time, and don’t introduce characters, develop characters, or move the plot along. Liz’s escape and recapture is a complete waste of film, as is the stealing and recapture of Recovery Seven, and Lennox’s escape and murder–just to name three instances.

But perhaps the strangest thing about “The Ambassadors of Death” is that, despite all of this, I enjoy watching it. I suspect the reason has something to do with the fact that at heart there’s a good story there. These aliens appear to be complicit in the malicious deeds of their captors. But we eventually discover that they are alien ambassadors, held against their will, while the Earth astronauts are being kept by the aliens until their ambassadors return. But the aliens won’t wait long; if their ambassadors aren’t returned soon, they will declare war on Earth. No-one on Earth understands the true nature of the ambassadors, leading to the trouble faced by the Doctor, Liz, and U.N.I.T. as they try to prevent Earth’s annihilation.

So, a good story, especially if you have a few hours to kill, but not essential Who.

Who Review: Doctor Who and the Silurians

A team of scientists is conducting experiments at a nuclear research center built into caves at Wenley Moor. There are high hopes for the project, but concerns over mysterious power outages, and incidences of mental breakdown among the staff, lead them to call in U.N.I.T. to investigate. One man is confined to a psychiatric ward where he does nothing but make cave drawings on the walls. Others who have gone down into the caves turn up dead with claw marks. The Doctor determines there’s an alien presence underground, a fact that is confirmed when one of the creatures tries to attack Liz. But these creatures aren’t an enemy from without. They claim to have been around long before humans came on the scene, and they intend to reclaim the planet they believe is rightfully theirs…

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 and the Silurians”–the only serial in the show’s history to have “Doctor Who and…” in the title–is a seven-part story written by Malcolm Hulke, whose last contribution to Who was co-writing “The War Games.” The basic premise of the story concerns an alien species called the Silurians, reptilian creatures who supposedly occupied Earth long before humans evolved. When the moon came into the Earth’s orbit, they believed it was a planet about to crash into them, so they headed for the caves, and hibernated underground. They intended to stay in their hibernation units for a limited time, however, the hibernation units developed a fault that required a large power surge to start reviving them. The nuclear power experiments provided the power they needed. Using that energy (hence the power outages), they began the process of revivifying their race.

Clearly the story assumes an evolutionary point of view, and given Hulke was an avowed atheist, I’m not surprised. Plenty of Doctor Who stories–indeed, much of science fiction period–is written from a secular humanistic worldview. While I don’t share that worldview, I can appreciate the story for what it is without letting it bother me. As long as it doesn’t mock alternative perspectives (which it doesn’t), I’m okay with it. Besides, it is science fiction. 🙂

Seven episodes seems long for a story, though the last season saw both eight-part and ten-part serials (“The Invasion” and “The War Games”). The difference here is this really could have been edited down to six, maybe even four parts. The whole thing with the Silurian’s anti-human plague and the race to find a cure does come across as padding to make the story stretch, although it fits with the power struggle between the peaceful and the warrior Silurians.

The idea that the Silurians, like the humans, have “doves” and “hawks” I thought was good. We’ve encountered a number of aliens who all think alike (Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors), so it’s nice to see dissension among the ranks. Just like the humans, there are those who want to negotiate a tolerant co-existence, and there are those that want to wipe out the whole species and take the planet for themselves. Unfortunately, the “hawks” win the day, but the Doctor holds out hope to the end that peace between Silurians and humans can be achieved. That is, until the Brigadier blows up the Silurian base and closes off all the cave entrances. It was a daring move to end the serial like this, with the Doctor’s plan frustrated by a frightened government. Not exactly a happy, positive conclusion to the story.

There are some interesting character points in “The Silurians.” The Doctor doesn’t come across as very likable at the beginning. His disrespect for the Brigadier is a little annoying, as is his expectation that the Brigadier just accept whatever he says without any proof. When the Brigadier challenged the Doctor on this point, I was 100% behind the Brig. There were times when the Brig wanted to pull Liz away from helping the Doctor to work phones or nurse the sick. At these points, Liz rightly protested that she’s a scientist, and her job was to assist the Doctor. I expected the Doctor to rally to her defense, but he rather sought to appease the Brigadier. Maybe he felt that, as an employee of U.N.I.T., Liz needed to do as the Brig said, right or wrong. But he conceded a little too quickly for my liking. He should have at least insisted she be allowed to return to help him as soon as possible.

There are a couple of plot issue I’d like to raise. The first has to do with the Silurians’ reference to the Van Allen Belt. When their plan to kill off mankind with a virus fails, they go to plan B: a machine that, with the power from the nuclear station, would destroy the Van Allen Belts that protect the Earth from the sun’s harmful rays. This would make the planet too hot for humans, but quite habitable for Silurians. My question is, how would these Silurians, who have been living underground for millions of years, know these belts as “Van Allen Belts”? They were named for James Van Allen, who is credited as having discovered them in 1958. Why would the Silurians also call them “Van Allen Belts”?

The second is the idea that the Silurians fled underground when they saw the moon coming into Earth’s orbit. I’m no cosmologist, but I’m assuming the accepted theory is that the moon was in orbit around the Earth prior to organic life developing? At least, the moon was there from the time humans have been around–that’s my understanding. If that’s the case, then why did the Silurians use their virus to keep humans from stealing their crops back in the day? By the time humans were around, the moon was in the sky and the Silurians were underground.

Overall, this is a good story, and even the “filler” plot isn’t boring. While not necessary, it didn’t make the whole thing drag. It’s the first story to feature Bessie, the Doctor’s car, so it has that going for it. Otherwise, not essential viewing, but worth catching if you can.

Who Review: Spearhead from Space

U.N.I.T. has been getting reports of meteors falling in the countryside. But, unlike regular meteors, these are not breaking up in Earth’s atmosphere, and they are falling in formation. Meanwhile, U.N.I.T. soldiers come across the body of a man lying in a field outside a blue police box. As the mystery of the meteors deepens, to the point that even his newly-hired Cambridge scientist, Liz Shaw, is baffled, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart longs for the Doctor’s help once again. Naturally, when the hospital staff examining the man from the field report an unusual cardiovascular system, and non-human blood, the Brigadier, filled with hope, rushes to see him. But while the man recognizes his old U.N.I.T. friend, Lethbridge-Stewart is disappointed to find he looks nothing like the Doctor. And time’s running out. Strange men in boiler suits have been seen around where the meteors fell. They seem impervious to bullets, and carry their own deadly weaponry. An alien plan is unfolding. But will the Doctor recover his senses in time to save the world from another invasion?

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 entered the Seventies with a bang. A brand new Doctor, a new companion, new monsters (the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness), and in color! Behind the scenes, Terrance Dicks had taken over fully as Script Editor, and the episode count for the season had been cut from 40-45 episodes a year to 25. The grueling schedule of the previous seasons had been one of the reasons Patrick Troughton wanted to leave. It no doubt took its toll on William Hartnell, too.

“Spearhead from Space” was written by Robert Holmes, who contributed “The Krotons” and “The Space Pirates” in the season before. Those first two efforts had merit (IMO, anyway), but they pale compared to the stories Holmes would write in the Seventies. Starting with “Spearhead,” it was this decade that would establish Holmes as one of, if not the, best Doctor Who writers the show has known. The story has good pacing, a solid, coherent plot, and believable characters, from the U.N.I.T. soldiers, to the poacher, Sam Seeley, to the sinister Channing.

The opening episode assumes the audience knows the Doctor has been forced to regenerate by the Time Lords, who also exiled him to Earth (see “The War Games”). The figure falling out of the TARDIS is wearing the Second Doctor’s clothes, but is clearly not the same person. (I find it amusing that the director takes great pains to conceal the Doctor’s face until the Brigadier arrives, as if it’s a big reveal. And yet the new opening titles features a large head-shot of Doctor number three!) There are some moments that suggest what’s happened. Liz Shaw gives the Doctor a mirror which he uses to examine his new face (rather like the way the Ninth Doctor checks out his reflection in a mirror in Rose’s flat). And later the Doctor tries to leave in the TARDIS, but can’t. He complains that they’ve changed the dematerialization codes, without mentioning the Time Lords explicitly. The Brigadier doesn’t ask what he means, so we are to assume the Doctor has filled him in on what happened. Is this too little information for someone new to the show? Or is this Holmes being clever, not bogging the plot down with backstory and names of unused characters (i.e., the Time Lords)? I’m not sure.

One plot point that gives me pause is where the Brig, the Doctor, Liz, and some U.N.I.T. soldiers first encounter an Auton. After a brief gun battle, the Auton is recalled with the excuse that they’re not ready for a full military encounter. In other words, they want to save an all-out battle until a later time, possibly when all the “meteors” have been collected. The fact is, that Auton could have taken out everyone there, including the Brig and the Doctor. Yes, that would have precipitated military action, but it would also have bought them time to finish their work and revive the Nestene Consciousness. With the Brig and the Doctor still alive, their plans are significantly hindered. So this feels to me a bit like an excuse not to kill off our main characters, but I suppose their reasoning is not without some plausibility.

This is another one of those stories that every Whovian should watch. Aside from the “firsts” I mentioned at the beginning of this review, “Spearhead” also establishes that the Doctor has two hearts. There’s even a mention of the sonic screwdriver, though we don’t actually see it. Arguably the most memorable moment of the whole show is when the Autons, posing as shop window dummies, come to life and walk the streets, shooting at people. The same scene was revisited in the first Ninth Doctor episode, “Rose,” where he encounters the Autons again. Excellent stuff! Definitely a must-see story.

A quick note on the DVD release. There are, in fact, three versions of “Spearhead from Space” floating around. There’s the original DVD release from 2002, which is pretty bare-bones. Then there’s the 2011 Special Edition, which has improved audio/video restoration, and a bunch of extras. And then there’s the Blu-Ray release. This is this only Classic Who story to receive a special Blu-Ray release, because, aside from the 1996 movie, it’s the only Who story shot entirely on 16mm film (a strike at the BBC prevented them using any studios, so it was all filmed on location). Unlike video, which has a limited quality range, film can be converted to modern High Definition digital standards. And the Blu-Ray of “Spearhead” does look spectacular. Worth the few extra $$.

Who Review: The War Games

The TARDIS lands in a battlefield, between enemy lines, and our heroes are soon picked up by British soldiers. From the barbed wire, trenches, and uniforms, the Doctor determines they have landed in the midst of the First World War. Something’s not right, however. No-one seems to remember how long they’ve been there. And the General has a video communication device that is quite at odds with 1917 technology. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe manage to get away in an ambulance, but soon encounter a strange fog, and then a cohort of Roman soldiers. Someone is playing war games, and if our heroes are to escape alive, they’ll need to find out who is responsible, what it is they are trying to do, and put a stop to it. But this might be a problem too big even for 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 War Games” is one of my all-time favorite Doctor Who stories. And I mean, one of my top five favorites, across both Classic and New Who. And my love of it goes beyond the importance of the story for Doctor Who history (our second encounter with a renegade Time Lord, the first time the Time Lords are mentioned, the third time the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver, the first time we get to see the Doctor’s “home planet,” the first time we actually see the Time Lords, the Doctor’s trial and exile, the end of the Second Doctor’s era, the end of Sixties Who, the last black-and-white Who story… need I go on?). It simply works for me as a story. There’s a cohesiveness to it. I find it a deeply satisfying story, even with the rather uneasy ending. Let me try to explain.

Well, before I explain, we need to remember that “The War Games” was an emergency filler story. If I recall correctly, there was supposed to be a four-part story then a six-part story to finish up the season. Patrick Troughton, Fraser Hines, and Wendy Padbury had handed in their notices, so the concluding story would need to see them off. But those final stories didn’t pan out. Script Editor-in-Training Terrance Dicks was told he needed to come up with a replacement story. It needed to be ten episodes long to fill the gap, and they needed it in two weeks. Faced with mission impossible, Dicks called on his script writing mentor, Malcolm Hulke, to help him out. Together, the pair rattled off “The War Games.” In short, it’s a miracle this story was written, and it’s a bigger miracle that it’s as well-formed as it is.

So, why is it so wonderful? For a start, you have ten episodes of Patrick Troughton at his best. In this story, we see the Second Doctor run the gamut of fear, humor, cleverness, and even some snark. Jamie and Zoe are both capable and vulnerable, as we know they can be. And there are some excellent performances from others, not least David Savile and Jane Sherwin (Carstairs and Lady Jennifer), and the superb Philip Madoc, last seen in The Krotons. This time, Madoc plays the War Lord, the main bad guy who is manipulating these war games. He exudes quiet menace, and a dominating presence in every scene he’s in. A simply brilliant performance–possibly his best in all his Who appearances.

You might think, “Ten episodes–my goodness, that’s about 4 hours! Surely it gets dull, especially in the middle episodes?” Not a bit. With a cliffhanger every 20-25 minutes, and a story that is precisely paced to keep the viewer engaged, I’ve yet to watch it through and lose interest. Terrance Dicks feels it was six episodes too long, but I disagree. I think if you trimmed it down, you would lose too much. I like that we don’t get to see the aliens behind the scenes until Episode 3, and the War Lord himself doesn’t come into the story until Episode 7. We actually have time to get to know the chief scientist, the chief security officer, and see some of the internal politics and intrigues going on, especially between the security officer and the War Chief.

The War Chief is of particular interest. He is a renegade Time Lord, who offered his services to this alien race in their plan for galactic dominance. Using his time travel knowledge, and the machines he has made available to them (he calls them “Sidrats”–SIDRAT… get it?), he can transport soldiers and warriors from different eras of Earth history to fight out their battles on this alien planet. For all the soldiers know, they are still on Earth, fighting in their own time zones. The War Lord’s plan is to use the surviving soldiers to form an army of the strongest fighters Earth has to offer. Why Earth? Because, in his estimation, it is the most war-like of planets–an opinion the Doctor doesn’t share. But the War Chief has an agenda of his own, and his attempt to get the Doctor on side makes for a cool sub-plot.

And just when it seems the Doctor has the situation under control, in Episode 9 he realizes he needs to call in the Time Lords.* And we understand there’s no alternative because Dicks and Hulke have laid the groundwork for this moment. His problem is that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people that needs to be transported back to their own times on Earth. But the TARDIS is somewhere in the 1917 zone, the SIDRATs have a limited life (a fact the Doctor discovered in an earlier discussion with the War Chief), and there are only two SIDRATs available. So, the Doctor jumps from the frying pan into the fire, because once he calls in the Time Lords, they’ll know where he is, and they’ll bring him back to stand trial for stealing a TARDIS and using it to “interfere.” Which is, of course, exactly what happens.

The final episode sees the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe try to evade capture, but they realize it’s futile. They end up on the Doctor’s as-yet-unnamed home planet, where the Doctor stands trial. The Time Lords send Jamie and Zoe back to their own times, remembering only their first adventure with the Doctor (which means, after all they’ve been through, Jamie will forget Zoe!). As for the Doctor, they sentence him to regeneration (“you’ve changed your appearance once, so you will do it again”–at this point in the series, the term “regeneration” has yet to be coined for this process), and exile on Earth. The episode closes with the Doctor spinning away into an uncertain future. Not exactly comforting. But what a daring way to end this epic masterpiece of storytelling.

I know this review is getting long, but to be fair, I have to point out a couple of negatives. There’s that moment in Episode 3 when the War Chief first hears about the time travelers. He goes off to the side, looks pensive, and we get a voice over: “Time travelers. I wonder…” This would have been better done with a look, maybe a smirk, a smile, or some indication of this thought on the War Chief’s face. Then, when he talks with the Doctor face-to-face for the first time, he could say something like, “When they told me there were time travelers, I wondered if it might be you.” A voice-over, though? Really? Not only is it hokey in the extreme, it’s just not done on Doctor Who. Also there are some really, REALLY overacted death scenes. Particularly the chief security officer, and the War Chief. But these niggling points are hardly show-stoppers.

Need I say this is MUST viewing for all Whovians? I don’t care who your favorite Doctor is, this story is such a great story, and it is such a landmark in Who history, you simply can’t avoid it.

*I have to point out, this is not the first mention of the Time Lords in this story. In Episode 6, the chief scientist mentions that the War Chief’s people are the Time Lords. By the time we get to Episode 9, we know the War Chief is of the same people as the Doctor, so we are not surprised to hear the Doctor refer to his people as the Time Lords.

Who Review: The Space Pirates

DoctorWho_TheSpacePiratesCDA band of space pirates is sabotaging space beacons, blowing them apart for their precious argonite which they sell off for large sums of money. The pirates are being chased by Earth Space Corps under the command of General Hermack, but so far the miscreants have evaded capture. It’s aboard one of these doomed space beacons that the TARDIS materializes, and the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe soon find themselves separated from the TARDIS when the propulsion units placed by the pirates forces the beacon apart. In a failed attempt by the Doctor to reconnect their section, they find themselves drifting further away into space. Rescue appears to come in the form of argonite prospector Milo Clancey. But when Milo shoots Jamie, our heroes can no longer be sure they are in safe hands. Who can they trust? Will they find the TARDIS? And can they get out alive…?

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!

I was in two minds whether to post a review of “The Space Pirates.” It’s not available for purchase because all but one of the six episodes (episode two) is missing. For the remaining five episodes, all we have are some filmed model shots, and the audio, recorded by fans when it was first broadcast in the spring of 1969. I watched the story courtesy of a reconstruction made by Loose Cannon, who used the missing episode audio track and the film clips, along with off-air pictures, and some clever CGI to give an idea of what those episodes would have looked like. Perhaps it’s not fair to review the story based on a single episode and reconstructions of the others? However, I’m a bit of a completist, and this is the only episode of the season that isn’t available on DVD. It’s hard not to say something about it. So, take what follows bearing in mind the preceding. 🙂

“The Space Pirates” was writer Robert Holmes’s second Doctor Who offering, and, I think, it’s his weakest. It’s still not a bad story, but the pacing is so slow, especially for the first couple of episodes. This feels like a four-part story stretched to fill two extra weeks. Episode one is so packed with backstory and stage-setting, the TARDIS crew don’t even show up until about 15 minutes in, and then they only get about five minutes’ screen time total. On the one hand I understand Holmes wanting to establish the main players in the story: the pirates, the Space Corps, the Issigri Mining Corp led by Madeleine Issigri, and Milo Clancey. But the way he does it comes across like the television equivalent of, what we call in writing circles, an “info dump.” And that’s not good if you want people to stay with you to episode two.

The model shots are good, considering budget and technological constraints. Some of the costumes are a little odd, especially the head-wear Madeleine and her secretary have on that look like plastic wigs. Maybe that’s what they were supposed to be? Space age hair? The men all have “normal” hair… though one of the Space Corps technicians sports a mustache that is very late-1960s!

And then there’s Milo Clancey’s accent. What exactly is it? He looks like a kind of space cowboy, and I get that he’s supposed to be a prospector. So we’re certainly given the impression that he’s American, if we follow these stereotypes. But if he’s supposed to be from the American West, I’m afraid his accent got lost somewhere between Tuscon and Bradford. The actor who plays him, Gordon Gostelow, was originally from New Zealand, so he’s neither a native American nor a native Brit. What can I say? If it’s an attempt at an American accent, I’ll give him points for effort. He didn’t do much worse than the “Americans” in the First Doctor story “The Gunfighters.” But it seems abundantly clear the production team never for one second thought anyone in the States would see this! 🙂

Where “The Space Pirates” is strong is in all the places Holmes excels. We have some colorful characters, and, all things considered, a good story–at least in essence. The plot isn’t forced along. He separates the TARDIS from the TARDIS crew in a way that works naturally with the plot. His cliffhangers are not contrived–indeed, ending the first episode with Clancey apparently murdering Jamie (and having Zoe call him a murderer to heighten the drama) is quite bold. Caven, the main pirate, is very callous, willing to kill, and, indeed commit mass murder to secure his own ends.

He also takes the TARDIS crew in some interesting directions. We see the Doctor try something risky, and the risk not paying off (as Zoe feared). There’s a scene where they’re in a dark room which they have to light using candles. “What are they?” asks Zoe. The Doctor then explains the principle of the candle and shows Zoe how to light one. I thought that was a wonderful piece of turn-about. Of course, Jamie didn’t bat an eye (except to marvel that they used candles “in this day and age”). And of course, why would Zoe have any experience with candles? She’s from the future, a time when they wouldn’t ever have used them.

As I said, this is not Robert Holmes at his best. But his talent is evident by the fact that his worst Who is still good Who. If you want to watch “The Space Pirates” for yourself, Google the story. The BBC used to turn a blind eye to fan-made reconstructions, but since the rise of digital technology and YouTube, they seem to be policing these things a little more. As of now, however, you should still be able to find the story out there. Hopefully one day, the remaining five episodes will turn up, and we can have a fully restored, complete story to watch.

Who Review: The Seeds of Death

Toward the end of the 21st century, the people of Earth have replaced standard modes of transportation with “T-Mat,” a system that can transport people instantly wherever there’s a T-Mat station. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe arrive in what appears to be a space museum owned by a Professor Eldred, whose work on space travel was rendered obsolete by T-Mat. Embittered by the government’s refusal to continue to fund his rocket projects, despite his insistence that T-Mat needs a back-up system, he continues to tinker in his own time. Now it seems his tinkering will pay off. T-Mat has developed a fault. Food supplies are not getting through, and the problem seems to stem from a failure at the vital T-Mat relay station on the moon. Someone must go up to investigate, and the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe volunteer to use one of Eldred’s rockets to get there. But they are about to encounter a deadly old foe that has taken control of the moon relay station, and plans to use T-Mat to bring death to mankind so they can take the planet for themselves…

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 broadcast between January and March of 1969, “The Seeds of Death” brings back the Ice Warriors, first introduced in the previous season’s story, “The Ice Warriors.” This six-part story was written by Ice Warriors creator Brian Hayles, who wrote all the Ice Warrior encounters in the Classic Series.

The concept for the story is good: the Ice Warriors plan to invade Earth, but Earth’s climate is too warm for the Martians. To solve this problem, they have developed seed pods that explode, filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, spreading a foam-like fungus that will reproduce these pods. The carbon dioxide will kill all life on the planet, and make conditions more bearable for the alien invaders. A small band of Ice Warriors form the advance party bringing the seed pods. Once the seeds have done their work, an invasion fleet is ready to advance and take over.

However, I have some issues with the execution of the story. Some parts seem a bit contrived, and there are some fairly major plot holes (at least in my mind–and I can be quite forgiving of plot holes). To begin with, the Doctor insists they can’t use the TARDIS to take people to the moon because the TARDIS isn’t very good at short trips. This is a valid concern, however, there are other times in the Classic Series where the TARDIS makes targeted trips without difficulty (e.g., in “The Ark”, “Logopolis”, and “The Five Doctors”). It seems to me the excuse that the TARDIS doesn’t do short trips is a bit like the “fixed points in time” in the New Series. There’s no consistency, it’s all a bit arbitrary, and is ultimately a pretty obvious plot device to stop the TARDIS crew from using the easiest option.

The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe plan to fly the rocket to the moon, fix T-Mat, then return using the rocket. But, uh-oh, Zoe investigates the engines after landing and discovers they need repair, so they will have to use T-Mat to return. Which means they will have to stay on the moon until T-Mat’s working again. The problem with this is that there was no indication that they might have engine trouble. No-one said, “Watch out for the engines on landing, they’re a bit dodgy!” Indeed, since they wouldn’t be using the rocket again, couldn’t they have crash-landed (albeit “safely”), rendering the whole rocket inoperable? They had to improvise with the tracking signal leading them to the moon station, so it would have made better sense story-wise if their landing was rougher than anticipated.

Then there’s the issue of the seeds. When an Ice Warrior takes one out of the container and puts it on a stand in the T-Mat machine, it remains dormant and disappears. Yet, when the Doctor picks one up, it swells and explodes in his face. Why? Is there something about the Ice Warriors that makes them able to hold the seeds? Perhaps their body temperature? That could be a plausible answer, but it’s never addressed.

The Ice Warriors’ main Achilles heel, as our friends discover, is their intolerance to heat. Our heroes manage to destroy a couple of them using focused beams of solar energy, and they are able to neutralize some by cranking up the station’s temperature to 50 degrees centigrade. And yet one of the Ice Warriors goes wandering off around Hamstead Heath in the sun. Granted, it was supposed to be winter, but that glaring sun on the back of his head would surely have made him go a bit doolally? It seems not. And if a carbon dioxide atmosphere is more to their liking, how was the advance party able to get on so well in the oxygen rich environments of the T-Mat stations?

The last gripe I’ll mention is the way they kill the seeds and the fungus: water. Wouldn’t it have occurred to the brightest minds on Earth that the foam avoided oceans, lakes, rivers, and ponds? And given it’s winter in all the places the pods went, wouldn’t there have been rain or snow?

Despite all of this, the cast put on a great performance. Once again, the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe work well together, and there’s some good dialog between them. The Ice Warrior costumes are among the best of Classic Who, in particular the face make-up with its reptilian texturing. And Brian Hayles takes this opportunity to give some depth to the Ice Warriors, presenting us with three different types of warrior: the heavily-armored grunt, the Ice Lord with lighter clothing and a helmet that leaves his lower face exposed, and the Grand Marshal with a sparkly helmet.

There have been two DVD releases of “The Seeds of Death,” one in 2003 and one in 2011. The original 2003 release was fairly basic with one or two extras. The 2011 “Special Edition” release has improved video and audio clean-up, along with commentaries, and more extra features. One is called “Lords of the Red Planet, ” that is billed as “history of the Ice Warriors,” but is really a “Making of” documentary about “The Seeds of Death.” Another, “Sssowing the Ssseedsss,” features some of the original Ice Warrior actors discussing what it was like to play these Martians.

Despite it’s shortcomings, “The Seeds of Death” is still good Who. Not the best, and certainly not the best of the Second Doctor era. But it’s also not the worst–not at all! I wouldn’t put it on the “must-see” list, but you wouldn’t be wasting your time watching it, especially given how little there is left of the Second Doctor in the archives to watch.

Who Review: The Krotons

The TARDIS takes the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe to the planet of the Gonds. These people are living in subjugation to the Krotons, a conquering people whom they have only ever heard, never seen. Prevented from exploring the outside (“The Wasteland”) due to a poisonous gas released by the Krotons on their arrival, the Gonds receive all their knowledge from the Krotons in their Hall of Learning. As the Gonds use the Teaching Machines, the brightest of their students are summond by the Krotons to become their “partners.” They enter a doorway never to be seen again. Our heroes arrive in The Wasteland, though they suffer no ill effects. They also witness one of the students emerging from the door, only to be vaporized. Finding their way inside, they tell the Gonds what they have seen, and manage to convince them that the Krotons are not as benevolent as they have been led to believe. Angered by the deception, the Gonds want to strike back. But how can they fight an invisible menace when they have no knowledge of advanced weaponry, or even basic chemistry? It’s up to the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe to either defeat the Krotons, or become their next “partners”…

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 four-part serial first aired at the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969. It has the distinction of being the first written by Robert Holmes, who went on to become arguably the best Who writer of the 1970s (maybe even of the whole Classic Series–I think so, anyway). It’s not a bad start, better than his next offering (“The Space Pirates”), but certainly not of the high caliber we will see from him later.

There’s some good world building and character development. The Gond society has a structure, and Holmes includes details about their way of life that the Doctor can use to help them. For example, he discovers there are significant gaps in the Gond’s knowledge. Given that they derive all they know from the Krotons, the Doctor suggests the key to defeating the Krotons is in what the Gond’s don’t know. In particular, chemistry. As it turns out, the Krotons are crystalline, made largely from tellurium, which is vulnerable to sulphuric acid. So there’s good reason why the Krotons haven’t allowed the Gonds knowledge of chemistry.

Conflict arises within the Gonds over how to rebel against the Krotons. There’s a power struggle, and one man, Eelek, played by the wonderful Welsh actor Philip Madoc, rises up to take control. At the beginning of the story, Eelek doesn’t seem to be that much of a threat, but as he gains support, his ruthlessness becomes apparent. He is willing to do whatever it takes, even hand over the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe to the Krotons, in the hope that this will save himself and his people. At the end of the story, the Krotons are dead, the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe have left, but Eelek is still alive. What to do with Eelek is a problem the other Gonds will still have to deal with–a loose end that Holmes is willing to let hang. Unusual for Who, but certainly more politically true to life.

There are great moments of dialog, and some good interaction between the Doctor and Zoe. The sequence when the Doctor takes a turn on one of the Learning Machines is funny, and so typically Second Doctor. As is the scene near the end where the Doctor and Zoe, captured by the Krotons, play for time by debating who stands where, and fiddling with headsets.

Initially, it seems this story doesn’t do Jamie’s self-esteem much good. His brain is considered “primitive” by the Krotons, and he is left to tend to one of the Gonds while the Doctor and Zoe go off to play brain games. But once again, Jamie shows his resourcefulness to escape the Krotons’ clutches, and inadvertently save the Doctor and Zoe. I also love the way the Doctor refers to Jamie’s mind as “undisciplined” rather than “primitive.” Not only is that less demeaning, it’s probably a lot more accurate. Jamie is far from stupid.

The biggest down-side to “The Krotons” is probably the Krotons themselves. The concept behind them is interesting: they only exist as a kind of crystalline soup in a tank until activated by the right kind of energy, which the Doctor and Zoe unwittingly provide. They then turn into these big, hulking geometric creatures with spinning heads. And South African accents. Frankly, not very intimidating (though, admittedly, they give the Quarks a run for their money). They would have been far more menacing, I think, if they’d stayed in their soup form with a disembodied voice.

I have to say, as I re-watch these episodes, I’m beginning to wonder if this TARDIS team might be one of the best the show has ever had. I wouldn’t count Zoe among my top five companions, but she really shines alongside the Doctor and Jamie. There’s such a good rapport between them, and their personalities balance each other well.

The DVD release of “The Krotons” comes with the usual commentary track and beautifully restored audio and video. It also includes a documentary retrospective on the Second Doctor, “Second Time Around,” which discusses the Troughton era, his stories, and both the fan and critical responses to them.

Maybe not an essential Who story, but certainly worth your time.

Who Review: The Invasion

The TARDIS reassembles itself, with crew safely inside, after the adventure with “The Mind Robber,” only to run into further difficulties. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe land on Earth, but a fault with the visual stabilizer renders the TARDIS invisible. The Doctor decides to call on Professor Travers, their friend from the Yeti adventures, to help with repairs. After hitching a ride to London in the back of a van, they find Travers is not at home. But the young lady who answers the door thinks her uncle, Professor Watkins, might be able to help. Except Professor Watkins hasn’t been seen since he went to work for International Electromatics. Indeed, there’s something not right about I.E., and the person in charge, Tobias Vaughn. And when our heroes try to investigate, they find not only their own lives are in danger, but Vaughn has allied himself with an alien force that plans to take control of all the inhabitants of planet Earth…

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 eight-part story follows directly on from “The Mind Robber,” creating a neat three-story arc that started with “The Dominators.” It was common in the First Doctor era to have stories that ran into each other, particularly when each episode had its own title (overarching story titles only came in Season 3 with “The Savages”), but we haven’t seen as much of that with the Second Doctor. Unlike modern Who, these story arcs don’t have any connecting thread throughout (e.g., “Bad Wolf” or “Torchwood”)–they’re just follow-on adventures.

“The Invasion” was written by former script editor Derrick Sherwin (the legendary Terrance Dicks had just taken over the script editing job). At the time, it was the longest Doctor Who story since Season 3’s twelve-part epic “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” Some think it’s too long, but I beg to differ. It’s actually quite a well-paced story. I particularly like that we don’t actually encounter the central villains (the Cybermen) until the end of episode 4. Hints are dropped throughout (Vaughn’s unnatural blink rate, and the robotic voice Vaughn talks to, for example), but up until that point, the story plays out like an Earth-bound thriller, with Vaughn as the all-too-accommodating evil mastermind.

This story sees the return of Colonel Leithbridge-Stewart, now promoted to Brigadier, and in charge of a newly-formed military group, the United Nations Intelligence Task-force (U.N.I.T.). The purpose of this group is to investigate extraterrestrial phenomenon. We will see more of the Brigadier and U.N.I.T. in later stories. Indeed, part of the reason for U.N.I.T.’s creation was anticipating the following season, when the Doctor would be on Earth more permanently.

There’s a lot to like about “The Invasion,” not least is the fact that, again, Jamie and Zoe are made good use of–they aren’t just side-line characters who ask questions and make cups of tea. In fact, there’s a nice part near the end where Zoe asks the Brigadier what she can do to help. You’re expecting the Brigadier to send her away to put the kettle on. Instead, he has her help one of his men, and then is given room to use her mathematical genius to wipe out a whole fleet of Cyberman spacecraft.

I also like the way the Cybermen are used in this story. They’re not in every shot, and their appearances are dramatically staged. In fact, they are actually scary, which is not always the case in other Cybermen stories, unfortunately. There’s a scene when Vaughn calls his Security Chief on the visual display, and after a pause, a Cyberman’s face appears. It’s unexpected, and creates a wonderfully terrifying moment. And, of course, there’s that iconic shot of Cybermen pouring out of the sewers and walking down the steps in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral (a scene re-created in the New Series 8 story “Dark Water”).

Kevin Stoney does an excellent job as the villainous Vaughn, whose body has already been converted by the Cybermen, his brain being the only part of him still human. There’s a chilling scene where Vaughn invites the enraged Professor Watkins to shoot him, which he does. It’s really quite adult for a 1968 children’s show. Vaughn slaps Watkins because he won’t do it. Provoked, Watkins points the gun and fires three shots. We see gun blasts, and hear Vaughn laugh off-camera. Watkins reels. Then we see Vaughn, still laughing, three smoking bullet holes in his shirt. Very effective drama.

The story was released as a 2-DVD set, with the eight episodes split over the two discs, along with a good amount of extras. Episodes 1 and 4 of “The Invasion” are missing from the BBC archives, so for this release, famed animation studio Cosgrove-Hall re-created the episodes using existing pictures and footage, along with the audio for each episode, to guide them. It’s not an animation style I particularly like, where most of the action is in the eyes and mouth, but it does help bring the audio to life. They did do a good job of matching sound to action, which I don’t doubt is hard to do. One major snafu, however, is that they have Zoe wearing the wrong clothes at the beginning of episode 1. She should be wearing her shiny jumpsuit from “The Mind Robber”; instead she’s in the blouse and skirt she changes into later. Oh well.

The DVD extras include a commentary track, a 50-minute “Making of” feature, and videos of how the animation was done. There’s also a really interesting short documentary, “Love Off-Air” in which Who fans talk about how they used to audio record their favorite show in the days before VCR. It includes interviews with long-time fans whose tape recordings are the only record we have of some early Doctor Who episodes.

In short, I would say “The Invasion” is must-viewing for Whovians, and essential viewing for fans of the Second Doctor.