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Who Review: Underworld

The TARDIS materializes at the end of the known universe on the R1C, a ship whose crew is on a quest to find a missing vessel, the P7E, which carries their valuable genetic race bank. The crew of the R1C are Minyans, a race who had received much help from the Time Lords in the past–so much so, they regarded the Time Lords as gods–but grew to resent Time Lord dominion over their planet, Minyos, and expelled them. The Minyans divided, and a civil war broke out that destroyed their world, leaving the two ships to find a new home. But the ships separated, and the crew of the R1C has been pursuing the P7E for thousands of years, using Time Lord technology to rejuvenate themselves when they become too old. Needless to say, as a Time Lord, the Doctor is not welcomed with open arms by the crew. Nevertheless, with the help of Leela and K-9, he proves his good intentions by helping the ship avoid being crushed by rocks when its size causes a gravitational pull that makes it the most attractive thing around. The ship crash lands through the soft surface of a planet in formation. But this is no ordinary planet, and there’s more to its hostile inhabitants than meets the eye…

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

Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin pull from Greek mythology for their tale, specifically culling from Jason and the Argonauts, and their quest for the golden fleece. Names have been changed to veil the reference (Jason is Jackson, the Minoans are the Minyans, Orpheus is Orfe, the Persephone is the P7E, etc.), but, as with the Gothic horror-based tales of the previous few seasons, it doesn’t really matter. Cast as a space quest, the story stands on its own, which is good for those who don’t know their Greek mythology.

As far as stories go, it’s not bad. I think the use of scientific principles to help explain key story elements, and add to the drama (in particular, the fact that large objects in space have gravitational pull), is well done. It’s certainly not the best Baker-Martin story, but it’s an entertaining four-parter with an engaging plot that doesn’t have a lot of holes (at least that I could find).

Where “Underworld” suffers most, I think, is in its realization. As with “The Invisible Enemy,” Baker and Martin have ideas that stretch even the most generous BBC budget. And at this point in the show’s history, the budget was anything but generous–especially given that this is the penultimate story in the season, and so much of the money had already been spent or allocated. To help cut costs, the production team decided to do something very experimental, and unheard of until that time: use Color Separation Overlay (“green screen”) for over a quarter of the entire story. This way, they wouldn’t have to build sets for certain scenes, instead using scale models of the sets upon which the actors would be superimposed.

Back in 1978, this was extremely risky. Everything was analog, with cameras physically linked to ensure co-ordination, and recording direct to videotape without the modern luxury of post-production computer clean-up. With this in mind, it’s quite an achievement for its time, and credit must be given to the technicians who pulled it off, as well as the actors who do a great job playing against blank walls. However, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, by today’s standards, it’s shy enough of believable to be distracting. There’s one scene in particular where the Doctor, Leela, and Idas float down a gravity lift. They achieve the effect with the actors standing on boxes which are hidden by the CSO. Did they not have wires and harnesses available? Would that have been too expensive? It would have been a lot more credible if they had been hanging rather than standing. As it is, it’s hard for the actors to not look like they are standing on something solid.

But it’s not just the CSO. The props don’t look as slick as one might prefer, and there’s an overall feeling of, well, shabbiness to it. And those tall helmets? And the googly-eyed robot Seers? Even some of the acting by the extras leaves a bit to be desired. Leela would have died in one corridor scene where her gun gives out. Thankfully, the guard chasing her forgot what his weapon was for when he was standing directly in front of her!

As I said, “Underworld” is not a bad story, and certainly watchable. However, I would consider it more a curiosity than must-see. Unless you’re a die-hard Whovian, or a completest, feel free to skip it.

Who Review: The Sun Makers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: Image of the Fendahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who News Flash: Peter Capaldi Leaving Doctor Who!

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

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

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

Who do you think would make a good Thirteenth Doctor?

Who Review: The Invisible Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: Horror of Fang Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: The Robots of Death

New companion Leela’s first trip in the TARDIS winds up on a sandminer that’s exploring the minerals of a distant planet. The crew hope to pull enough valuable content from the planet into the vessel to make both themselves, and the company they work for, very rich. Many of the menial tasks on the sandminer are performed by humanoid robots. They do everything from piloting the craft, to heavy lifting, to giving massages to the weary crew, obeying their prime directive not to do harm to humans. The Doctor and Leela show up just as the bodies of two crew members turn up dead–strangled to death. Naturally, the newcomers are the first to be accused. However, it soon becomes apparent that the Doctor and Leela are innocent. But if they didn’t do it, and none of the humans on board did it, that only leaves one logical, and horrifying alternative. Indeed, that alternative would surely spell the end of that civilization, which is why no-one wants to listen to the Doctor, continuing to insist that the murderer is human. As the body count increases, the Doctor must find out who is overriding the robots’ programming, before it’s too late…

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

“The Robots of Death” is without doubt one of my all-time favorite Classic Who serials. Part of my affection for it is sentimental, since I remember watching it the first time around. It made a huge impression on me as a seven-year-old Whovian–perhaps the closest I’ve come to literally hiding behind the sofa. The images I saw back then never left me; it’s one of the few Doctor Who stories from the Seventies of which I have vivid memories. When I introduced Doctor Who to my kids back in 2004, before there was a New Series, I chose “The Robots of Death” as their introductory story. It hooked them for life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: The Return of Doctor Mysterio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: The Face of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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