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Who Review: Colony in Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: The Claws of Axos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: The Mind of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links and Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: Terror of the Autons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your turn to share your thoughts!

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.