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Who Review: The Sontaran Experiment

The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry teleport down to Earth from the Nerva space station. As they expected, the place is deserted, and the teleport receptors need adjusting. While the Doctor gets to work, Harry and Sarah explore. But the three of them soon discover that Earth has visitors–the crew from a space ship that arrived in response to a distress signal some time ago. When they arrived, their ship was vaporized, and since that time, members of the crew have been disappearing. But it seems the crew weren’t the first to arrive on Earth, and with a full-scale alien invasion planned, they won’t be the last…

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 Sontaran Experiment” is a two-part story by established Who writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin. The second story of the season, “The Ark in Space,” was originally given a six-episode block, but producer Philip Hinchcliffe preferred to divide the block into two separate but related stories, “Ark” getting four episodes, and this story the remaining two. I think that was a good call; six episodes would have been to much for “Ark.” But it leaves “The Sontaran Experiment” feeling a bit like a filler. The TARDIS crew have come to Earth to do a job, which they do, though they are sidetracked for a little while.

The story is okay, competent enough, but not Baker and Martin’s best. Bringing back the Sontarans is understandable; they were script editor Robert Holmes’ invention (see “The Time Warrior”), and they work well as monsters. However, Sontarans are supposed to be warriors, so the idea of a solitary Sontaran going to Earth to conduct experiments on humans is a little incongruous. Sure, strategically they want to discover human weaknesses so they can exploit them. But let’s face it, they would probably swarm the Earth and blow everybody up. They’re hardly going to try dehydrating them, or scaring them to death, so the information Styre is gathering is ultimately pointless.

Also, the Doctor’s plan to defeat Styre, though it works, is a bit convoluted. Sontarans supposedly feed off of energy, so he has Harry enter the Sontaran ship and mess with the energy machine so it feeds off of the Sontaran. I suppose with only two episodes, it’s hard to develop a more creative solution, but that just seems a bit too easy. I will commend the fact that Styre hinted at this solution when he noted that humans depend on chemical and organic food for energy, which suggests he doesn’t.

A good piece of continuity is the fact that Styre’s gun blast didn’t kill the Doctor because he had some plating from the Nerva rocket in his inside coat pocket. I remember seeing the Doctor take that in episode four of “The Ark in Space,” and I wondered what relevance that might have to the story. I don’t know if that was planned, but it certainly worked out well.

Sadly, the Sontaran costume doesn’t look as good as it did in “The Time Warrior.” Indeed, I doubt it’s the same costume. The original only had three fingers on each hand, while Styre has five. For a clone race, that’s a bit of an oversight.

To sum up, what makes “The Sontaran Experiment” worth watching is the fact that it ties up “The Ark in Space.” You can watch it as a stand-alone, and it’s entertaining enough for that, but there are too many references to the previous story. You would feel as if you’re missing something. So watch it to find out what happened next, but don’t expect too much.

Who Review: The Ark in Space

On leaving U.N.I.T. HQ, Harry Sullivan gives the TARDIS’s helmic regulator a sharp turn, and the crew find themselves on a space station in the far future. The Doctor dates the station to the 30th century, but is convinced they are at a time centuries beyond that. His theory is confirmed when they discover records of the human race stored on microfilm, and row upon row of cryogenically preserved people. A couple of the station’s residents, Vira and Noah, revive and inform the Doctor that the people stored on the station are the last survivors of planet Earth. Centuries ago, scientists predicted solar flares would soon consume all life on the planet, so they selected the best representatives of mankind to be held in suspended animation, along with records of all man’s achievements, until such a time as it was safe to return to Earth. But something has gone wrong. The station’s residents have been asleep longer than planned because someone, or something, cut the power to their wake-up call. And that someone, or something, has already taken over one of the sleepers, and is using his knowledge of the station to stage a coup that will wipe out the human race…

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 Ark in Space” was written by new script editor, Robert Holmes, after previous attempts at the story by other writers fell through. Holmes was new to the script editing job, but certainly not new to Who, having written stories for both the Second and Third Doctors. Robert Holmes is, in my estimation, one of the best Classic Who writers, certainly the best post-1970, and “The Ark in Space” is often held up as an example of why he is so highly regarded as a Who writer. I have to say, I fully concur with the assessment. This is a great story, and, along with its predecessor, “Robot,” helps firmly establish both the character of the Fourth Doctor, and Tom Baker as the new Doctor.

Holmes, and new producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, wanted to make Doctor Who a little darker and more adult. Today, that would involve not only gritty stories, but gritty effects and sets. In 1975, the budget for Doctor Who didn’t exist to do visually grittier, so the story had to compensate for what the visuals lacked. And does it ever! The idea of an alien insect race that lays its eggs in a dormant human host is quite nasty. And seeing the gradual transformation of Noah into the Wirrn swarm leader was quite cutting edge for children’s television at the time. It’s not just the outward change, either–it’s the mental struggle we see as Noah’s mind fights against, but eventually succumbs to, the Wirrn possessing him.

The space station set is very well realized, even if the Wirrn themselves lack. And really, where they lack is in money, not imagination. The dead Wirrn looks very good, but the living ones move like actors in costume. The same goes for the Wirrn larvae which are, essentially, stunt men in big bubble wrap sleeping bags. To be fair, bubble wrap was new at the time, so most people wouldn’t have recognized it. But it is, perhaps, a bit overused, though, again, it must have been hard trying to create the effect on such a tight budget. I think the Wirrn larvae in the solar stack, squirming around and looking out the window, is probably the most effective of all the creature shots in the show.

The story itself, however, is hard to fault. A great idea (which is often claimed was stolen by Ridley Scott for the movie “Alien”), a plot that works well, some great lines and memorable moments (the Doctor’s “Homo sapiens…” speech, for example), and superbly acted by all. Even newcomer, Medical Officer Harry Sullivan, proves useful (though modern sensibilities will grate at his old fashioned view of women).

A couple of interesting moments. First, the High Minister, whose voice comes on the intercom while Sarah is getting ready to be preserved, sounds a lot like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. At the time this broadcast, Thatcher was only just starting to make her mark politically, so I doubt it was intentional. Nevertheless… Also, I found it curious that Vira refers to “Noah” as “a name from mythology,” clearly showing no regard for biblical faith. However, a later voice on the intercom talks about how the planet’s “prayers” are with them, and says, “God be with you.”

Another point of interest is the fact that this story follows directly on from “Robot,” and continues directly into the next story, “The Sontaran Experiment.” Indeed, this whole season forms a story arc, though not quite in the same way as the New Series season arcs. That kind of story continuity was not common in Doctor Who, especially after the Hartnell era in the early-to-mid 1960s.

To sum up, this is Classic Who, and without doubt a must watch (in bold type) for Whovians. It’s simply one of the best serials of the Classic era, and it played a big part in solidifying Tom Baker as the new Doctor.

Who Review: Robot

In an attempt to keep the newly-regenerated Doctor from flying off, the Brigadier involves him in a case of disappearing parts. It seems someone, or something, has stolen what appear to be the parts needed to make a disintegrater gun. Their worst fears are confirmed when the top secret plans for such a gun are taken from a Ministry of Defense advanced research center. From his investigation, the Doctor determines that whatever stole the plans is very large, very heavy, and not likely to be human. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane Smith goes to visit the National Institute for Advanced Scientific Research (“Think Tank”), armed with a U.N.I.T. pass. The Institute has created a giant humanoid robot, K1, that is programmed to replace humans working in hazardous environments. Its creator, Professor Kettlewell, used to be a member of Think Tank, but left to pursue alternative energy solutions. The director of the Institute insists that the robot is benevolent, obeying its prime directive to serve humans and not harm them. But as the Doctor and Sarah start connecting the dots between the thefts and “Think Tank,” they come to the conclusion someone is overriding the robot’s prime directive. A conclusion that puts their lives, and the lives of all humanity, in danger…

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 primary purpose of the first post-regeneration story is to introduce the audience to the new Doctor, and if nothing else, “Robot” fulfills that purpose flawlessly. Aside for some (at times lengthy) cut-aways to show the robot stealing things, the first half of episode one gets us into the wacky character of Doctor number four. Cho-Je warned the Brigadier and Sarah Jane that the Doctor’s behavior might be “a bit erratic” to begin with. That was a fair warning, as the new Doctor creeps around in his nightgown, ties up Harry Sullivan, and tries on a variety of outlandish costumes before arriving at his iconic hat and scarf. But in the midst of this, we see the wacky-but-serious Doctor that we will come to know and love for the next seven years. There’s no mistaking this is the Fourth Doctor. Tom Baker puts his stamp on the roll from his opening lines. Of course, we can only say such things with hindsight–audiences still had to get used to this wild, bug-eyed, Harpo Marx character. But it is interesting how little Tom’s Doctor’s character changed from this opening story in 1974/1975 to his last in 1981.

The story itself isn’t particularly spectacular. It’s essentially a riff on King Kong, with the monster forming a bond with Sarah Jane, and protecting her from the destruction he plans for the rest of humanity. At the end, when the robot is no more, Sarah can’t help feeling sorry for him. So, perhaps a little clichéd, but certainly not the worst in the Who canon.

The robot design is actually pretty good. If anything, it’s the CSO, or “green screen” effects, that let the story down visually. The strangest part of the story for me is the emotional breakdown the robot has after it kills Kettlewell. In fact, this robot is very highly strung for a mechanical monster, which stretches credulity a bit. I also wonder why the U.N.I.T. soldiers continue shooting at the robot even when it’s obvious their bullets have no effect. Surely it would be better to try a different strategy rather than waste time and ammunition with the same futile effort?

At the end of the story, Harry Sullivan, the U.N.I.T. medical officer referenced in episode one of the previous story, “Planet of the Spiders,” becomes a member of the TARDIS crew. We also see the Doctor offer Sarah Jane and Harry Sullivan a jelly baby. From that moment on, the Fourth Doctor will never leave the TARDIS without his white bag of jelly babies.

To sum up, as Doctor Who stories go, “Robot” is nothing special. What makes it special is that it’s our introduction to the man who would become the face of Classic Doctor Who. It also marks the end of an era, as Terrance Dicks passes the Script Editor baton to the inimitable Robert Holmes, and Barry Letts hands producer duties to Philip Hinchcliffe. And so begins what is arguably Classic Who’s golden era.

Links and Stuff

I don’t have a whole lot to talk about today, probably because Janet Reid returned from her blog vacation and I’ve spilled so many words on her comments that I have few left for myself.

boxesofbooksOn the moving front, as you can see, I am making some progress with packing. Most of those boxes contain books, and I haven’t finished yet. Still nine more shelves to go. It’s possible we might be zeroing in on THE house, not because we are all giddy over a particular property, but by a process of elimination. As Christians, we believe there is a house the Lord wants us to have, and if we don’t recognize it, he will make sure we know which it is. When we first moved to Eastern NC, it wasn’t my plan to move here. In fact, this place wasn’t on any of our radars as somewhere we would like to live. But after four months of unemployment and scouring the country for a job, this was the only place that offered me one. Some may say that’s just “chance” or “the way things go.” Our worldview sees the hand of God putting us where he wants us to be. So it is with this house. The only other house on our list that was a strong contender just went into “Pending” mode on Zillow.com (meaning the seller has accepted an offer from a buyer). Neither we nor our realtor have found any other houses within our size and financial parameters. This leaves us with one house that, while we don’t love it, meets our needs. But we’ll see. We haven’t signed anything yet, and the Lord may throw us a curveball between now and then. I’ll keep you all posted.

Some Doctor Who news. It seems BBC America and BBC Worldwide (the US and UK commercial branches of the BBC) have co-sponsored a complete animated restoration of the Second Doctor’s first story, “The Power of the Daleks.” This story no longer exists in the BBC archive except for a few clips and the complete audio soundtrack (courtesy of devoted fans who, back in 1966, hooked up their tape recorders to their TVs to capture every sound). The well-regarded animators taking on the project have coupled the existing soundtrack with their animation to bring the story back to the archives.

This isn’t the first time missing stories have been restored by means of animation. “The Reign of Terror,” “The Tenth Planet,” “The Moonbase,” “The Ice Warriors,” and “The Invasion” have all had lost episodes animated. However, this is the first time that a complete story has been restored using animation. It is due to be broadcast in November, and then made available online and on DVD.

So far the BBC has only released a 30-second trailer (see below), but it looks like the same animation style as with the previous efforts. That, to me, is a bit of a disappointment. While those animations weren’t bad, and certainly sufficed to present the story visually, they look cheap and rough. I would love to see these missing stories given a Pixar-style treatment (like “The Incredibles” or “Ratatouille”), and you wouldn’t have to pay Pixar to do it. Have you seen some of the cut scenes from recent video games? There’s some incredible computer animation being done by game designers and amateurs who would jump at the chance to be involved in a project like this.

I don’t doubt this’ll be a good attempt, and I’ll certainly buy the DVD when it’s available in the States. “The Power of the Daleks” is a great story, and worth the attention. I just wish they would get away from the Flash animation, cardboard cut-out look, and try something different.

Here’s the trailer:

Finally, this week, September 8th to be precise, marked the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of the first episode of the TV series “Star Trek.” With its multi-racial crew, the show sought to break new ground in television, attempting to promote a non-theistic philosophy of peace and co-existence through reason and science. The original series was not a resounding success, and only lasted a few seasons. However, a devoted cadre of fans kept the candle burning, and the show returned in the 1980s, starting a movie franchise, and then some well-received spin-off TV shows (“Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Deep Space 9,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” etc.). I was never a Trekkie, though I did appreciate the show, was familiar with the main characters, and enjoyed watching it. So happy birthday, Star Trek!

Are you a Trekkie or a Whovian–or both… or neither?

Who Review: Planet of the Spiders

Shaken by the events of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” Mike Yates has gone to a Tibetan meditation center in the English countryside to find peace of mind. While there, he observes some strange goings on. He invites Sarah Jane Smith to investigate with him, tempting her with the idea that it might be a good story for the magazine she writes for. While there, they see a group of men, led by a former salesman named Lupton, perform a chant which conjures a giant spider. Meanwhile, back at U.N.I.T. HQ, the Doctor is conducting experiments into clairvoyance and precognition when a package arrives. It’s the blue crystal he took from Metebelis Three and gave to Jo Grant as a wedding gift (see “The Green Death”). It seems the Amazonian natives are scared of the crystal, so she has returned it. But this crystal has incredible power, and the current inhabitants of Metebelis Three want it back. Their plans for global domination depend upon it, and keeping the crystal from them will come at a very high cost 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!

For the Third Doctor’s last story, the production team pulled out all the stops and gave Jon Pertwee the opportunity to fight, fly, drive, play with gadgets, and hang out with familiar faces. For the action-adventure Doctor, this was the perfect story on which to exit the series. It was ostensibly written by Robert Sloman, but as with other Robert Sloman stories, it was actually written largely by producer Barry Letts, with Sloman contributing.

The serial starts with references back to “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” as Mike Yates talks about the business with the “Golden Age” and him pulling a gun on the Brigadier. We get another Who back-reference, when the Doctor hands Clegg the clairvoyant his sonic screwdriver, he has visions of drashigs from “Carnival of Monsters.” The last major back-reference is the appearance of the Metebelis crystal from “The Green Death,” which becomes central to the story’s plot.

Let’s deal with the story’s weak points. First, and most prominent, has to be the chase scene, which has the Doctor in Bessie, the Whomobile, a gyrocopter, and a hovercraft. It’s all padding, though in this instance, perhaps somewhat forgivable to indulge Jon Pertwee and his love of such things one last time. And if you’re not convinced that the chase was completely pointless, the fact that, in the end, the spiders transport Lupton from his boat back to the meditation center, demonstrates it conclusively. The spiders could have done that before the chase even started!

There’s some very good acting, and some really not-very-good-at-all acting too, mostly on the part of the “two-legs” on Metebelis Three–especially Neska. They don’t seem to be putting much effort into making their characters believable, which becomes even more obvious when they are in scenes with Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane), who is acting her heart out.

And then there are the spiders. It’s notoriously difficult to make convincing model spiders, especially when they have to move. Even if you get them to look authentic, the moment you have to make them scuttle across a floor, all sense of reality is lost–unless you use computer animation, which wasn’t available to the Doctor Who team in 1974. What we have here is a valiant effort that maybe looked realistic to kids in 1974, but unfortunately doesn’t hold up today.

During the course of the story there are some flashback scenes which drip with hoakiness. The one with Tommy, especially. In all honesty, I don’t think these were necessary at all, but clearly the producers felt the audience wouldn’t remember key plot points over the space of a few weeks, so they needed the flashback voice-over “cellar… cellar… cellar… Lupton in the cellar… Lupton in the cellar…”

Lastly, there were a couple of times things were introduced into the story out of left field to save the day. The first was the Doctor’s machine that we had never seen before, and now suddenly revives him, and helps him identify stones that can counteract the spider zaps. The second was the fact that The Great One was actually planning to use the crystal to complete a circuit that would enable her to rule the universe. But completing the circuit produces an unhealthy amount of positive feedback that kills her and all the spiders… and blows up their mountain dwelling, of course. This development was dropped in at the end, having never been talked about before, which was a bit deus ex machina for me.

The two major positives about the story, and two of the main reasons you should watch it, are the story itself, and the acting from the main cast. Yes, there’s padding, and some questionable moments as noted above. But on the whole, it’s a good, coherent story, and a fitting end to the Third Doctor’s tenure. We are introduced to the concept of “regeneration” through K’anpo’s death, which prepares us for the Doctor’s own transformation. And both Lupton and Tommy’s story arcs are developed well.

As for the main cast acting, Lupton is quintessentially duplicitous and self-serving, deliciously played by John Dearth. Tommy, the simple-minded man who stares into the crystal and becomes enlightened, is brought to life by John Kane in a very convincing performance. It’s a shame they didn’t cast ethnically Asian actors for K’anpo and Cho-Je, but given the production team were deliberately casting people Jon Pertwee had worked with before in Doctor Who, the choices were understandable. Kevin Lindsay (Cho-Je) previously played the Sontaran, Linx, while George Cormack (K’anpo) had played King Dalios in “The Time Monster.”

The regeneration scene is, perhaps, the crowning moment of the story. Beautifully acted with no incidental music, Elisabeth Sladen and Jon Pertwee give it their all. The only disappointing part is the actual regeneration itself, which is a simple cross-fade from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker. It hardly lives up to all that preceded it.

In short, I would call this a must-see story. Yes, it has its failings, but it’s fun, and dramatic, and really sums up the Third Doctor’s era.

Who Review: The Monster of Peladon

The Doctor wants to pay Peladon a return visit, so he takes Sarah Jane back there, with the intention of dropping in on his old friend, the king. However, it is now fifty years after the events of “The Curse of Peladon,” and there’s a new monarch: Queen Thalira, King Peladon’s daughter. And there’s trouble brewing. The miners don’t like the conditions under which they are forced to work. And yet the precious trisilicate they are mining is essential in the Galactic Federation’s war with Galaxy Five. Now that Peladon is a member of the Galactic Federation, it is obliged to help, but the miners are resentful of the Federation since it’s because of them, and the new tools and weapons they want to introduce, that they are suffering. Alpha Centuri, now a Federation Ambassador, is on Peladon to help settle the dispute. Then visions of Aggador, the beast worshiped by the Peladonians, start appearing, killing miners. Chancellor Ortron is convinced it’s a sign of Aggedor’s displeasure with the aliens on Peladon. The Queen isn’t sure, so she calls on the Doctor to help find out what’s going on, and bring peace to the planet. But there’s more to the situation than disgruntled miners. It seems Aggedor may not be the only monster on Peladon…

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 is one of the few times in Doctor Who when the Doctor makes a return trip to a planet he visited in a previous serial. Last time he was on Peladon, he took Jo Grant, who ended up getting a marriage proposal from the king. This time, he takes Sarah Jane, who tries to instill some feminist values into the young queen.

While “Monster of Peladon” harks back to “The Curse of Peladon” from two years previously, it works as a stand-alone. If you’ve never seen “Curse” you can follow “Monster” without any problem. If you have seen “Curse,” though, there are some things you’ll pick up on. The opening shot, for example, looks identical to the opening shot of “Curse.” You’ll also pick up on the references to the Doctor’s last visit, as well as the Doctor’s way of dealing with the physical Aggedor (which takes a bit of the punch away from one of the cliff hangers). As with the last visit, we have visions of Aggedor being used to scare people toward a certain point of view. But this time, there’s more to the plot, with a hidden enemy attempting to control the war with Galaxy Five through the supply of trisilicate, and a double agent on the scene trying to get rich from the precious mineral.

The double agent was a good twist to the plot, and, I think, necessary given one could quite easily figure out the main monster reveal. Brian Hayles wrote the story, as he did “The Curse of Peladon.” In “Curse,” the Ice Warriors played a prominent role. Brian Hayles created the Ice Warriors, and wrote the stories that introduced them in the Second Doctor era. It only makes sense that the Ice Warriors would play a part in “Monster,” too. While the Ice Warriors in “Curse” were trying to play nice with everyone, the ones in “Monster” are from a faction that want to return to the glory days, when the martians were a fearful military force.

On the whole, this is a good story, with an interesting plot. As I said, the double agent was a good plot twist, and one that wasn’t revealed until late into the story. You get hints that this person might be up to no good, but nothing overt, especially at first. The costume people did a great job with Azaxyr, the main Ice Warrior. The scaly mouth works well, and holds up even today, I think, with our high special effects expectations. Another special effects win (I think) is the scene where the Doctor and Sarah are thrown down a pit. The director achieves this by showing them being pushed, then cutting away to them flailing around against a black backdrop, and then cutting to them falling on the ground. It sounds a bit cheesy when described, but it’s actually quite effective.

On the negative side, we have the badger-headed miners. Okay, so it’s not their heads so much as their stripy hair. It just looks odd, like they’re wearing close-fitting fur hats. Which they probably are. And then there’s a scene where a guard sits sharpening his sword. A few moments later, he holds it by the blade. Ouch! A bit of a continuity oversight, methinks. 🙂

“The Monster of Peladon” is the penultimate story of Jon Pertwee’s final season as Doctor Who, and it seems that for this season, Jon wanted to get as much fighting, sword play, and other action hero kind of stuff in as possible. In “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” the Doctor got his new car. In this story, as with “The Time Warrior,” the Doctor gets into some sword fights, as well as an epic fist fight.

Looking ahead, there are a couple of lines in this story that will reappear in the next. In one scene, Sarah quotes the Doctor as saying, “Where there’s life…” In another scene, Sarah weeps over the Doctor, thinking he’s dead. The Doctor’s eyes flicker open and he says, “Tears…?” There’s a poignancy to where these lines crop up in the Third Doctor’s last story.

To sum up, I’d say “The Monster of Peladon” is worth watching. The plot is twisty enough to stay interesting, even if it does repeat some themes from the previous Peladon story. Yet there’s enough that’s different to make it worthwhile. And despite the miners’ hair disaster, is not bad visually.

Who Review: Death to the Daleks

As promised at the end of the previous story, “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” the Doctor is taking Sarah Jane to the paradise planet of Florana for a well-deserved holiday, when the TARDIS experiences an inexplicable power drain. Using an oil lamp to guide their way, the Doctor and Sarah Jane go outside to find they are not on Florana at all. After a run in with the planet’s native inhabitants, they encounter a team from the Marine Space Corps who, like the TARDIS crew, have been forced to land due to something interfering with their power supply. The MSC crew’s interest in the planet, Exxilon, is a mineral called Parrinium, which they need to cure a deadly plague that threatens the lives of 10 million people. However, no-one is leaving Exxilon until they discover the source of the power interference. And to complicate things, old enemies of the Doctor have shown up with plans of their own…

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!

“Death to the Daleks” was broadcast between February 23rd and March 16th, 1974. The four part story was written by Dalek creator Terry Nation, and features a lot of classic Terry Nation problem-solving puzzles. In typical Nation world-building style, the planet’s inhabitants, the Exxilons, are divided into two groups: those that worship the beautiful city with its glowing tower, and the heretics who see the city as the cause of their problems, and want to destroy it. The city worshipers chant and perform rituals, such as sacrificing foreigners to the city by dropping them into a pit and leaving them at the mercy of the creature that lives beneath (more about that in a moment). The heretics live underground in fear of the fanatics, plotting a way to bring about the city’s downfall and freeing their people from its tyranny.

And then there’s the city itself, built by a highly advanced civilization to be self-sustaining to the point where it acts like an organism, repairing itself and creating antibodies to deal with invaders. It’s the beacon on this city that is preventing the flow of power within any machine that comes within its vicinity. This includes flash lights, but not oil lamps. For some strange reason, it also includes Dalek guns, but not Dalek motors–they are still able to move around.

The acting in the story is good, especially Elisabeth Sladen. She plays Sarah Jane with such conviction, you can see in her eyes she is totally sold on making you believe this is real. It’s a shame Nation gave her the ultimate cliché Who companion line, “What is it, Doctor? What’s happening?” at the moment the lights go out in the TARDIS. It seems out of character for her. Otherwise, we begin to see why Sarah Jane fast became a fan favorite.

For that alone, this story is worth watching. There are plenty of odd moments that, strangely, make time spent with “Death to the Daleks” even more worthwhile. These odd moments fall into two categories, odd in a good, quirky or unusual sense, and odd in a… well, just plain odd sense. On the “good” side, we have the Doctor going off without Sarah Jane while she goes to change into something a bit warmer than her beach costume, just after Sarah Jane tells him not to go off without her. We see Daleks unable to use their weapons, so they adapt their guns to fire bullets. Also, there’s the Doctor’s ominous command to Sarah Jane before he enters the city: “If I don’t come back, go with them” (i.e., the Marine Space Corps). That line adds a level of intensity, showing a hint of trepidation, that the Doctor really doesn’t know what he’s getting into. And then there’s the Doctor’s almost inappropriate humor at the end, as the city melts, undoubtedly killing all who are within: “Pity. Now the universe is down to 699 wonders.”

On the just-plain-odd side, we have the Daleks using model TARDISes for target practice with their new weapons. There’s the awkward battle between the Dalek and the “root” monster in the underground pit, clearly a victim of budget constraints. The “root” looks like a vacuum cleaner hose with a headlight. In fact, it probably is a vacuum cleaner hose with a headlight.

And then there’s the whole puzzle scene at the end of episode three and beginning of episode four, which deserves its own paragraph. For some reason I thought these puzzles were reminiscent of Nation’s “The Keys of Marinus” from 1964, where the TARDIS crew had to go through a series of quests to find a set of keys. Unlike the “Marinus” trials, though, these puzzles are a bit lame. First, we have a maze. A big maze on a wall. And in the room are the skeletons of those who couldn’t figure out how to draw a line from start to finish, and spent so long on it, they died. It’s a MAZE for crying out loud! They’re not that hard. Even one this big! If you take your time, perhaps an hour or so, it wouldn’t be that hard to solve. Sorry, but I would hardly call that an intelligence test. Then we have the floor puzzle, which the Doctor doesn’t even figure out; he just uses the sonic screwdriver to tell him which areas are safe. Where’s the logic in that? AND… they made seeing the floor puzzle the episode three cliffhanger!! “Look out!” says the Doctor to Bellal, his Exxilon friend, and the camera zooms in on the extremely threatening red and white floor tiles!!! DUH DUH DUH!!!! Eeeeerrrrrr… oooeeeoooo…. *sigh* That really wasn’t well planned. And then there’s the mind attack, which was probably the most effective of the “challenges.” While all this is going on, the Daleks are hot on the Doctor’s heels. Except… how did they solve the maze when the Dalek’s plunger couldn’t have reached to the starting position, and is too big to accurately trace the correct path? And since they got through while the Doctor and Bellal were just about finished with the Tiles of Doom, how come they didn’t catch up? What’s more, the Daleks were able to glide over the tiles, sustaining little damage from the electric bolts that would have fried the Doctor. And yet it took them ages to get anywhere close to the Doctor and Bellal!

One more point of odd interest. There’s a scene where the Daleks are using the Exxilons and the Marine Space Corps crew to mine for Parrinium. One Dalek is guarding Jill, a crew member, in a cave, but Jill escapes, with help from Sarah Jane. The Dalek realizes its prisoner has fled, and instead of immediately setting out to recapture her, has a complete mental breakdown. This is Dalek depression at its worst. “I have failed! I have failed!” it cries out until it shuts down completely. Are the Daleks aware of the deep psychological issues some of their number have?

Oh, and just one last thing: I have never understood the title. Why “Death to the Daleks”? Isn’t that what everyone wants in a Dalek story? Perhaps someone could explain that to me.

To sum up, as I said, this serial is worth watching for the performances and the generally good story. It’s even worth it for all the strange and quirky parts I mentioned above. 🙂

Who Review: The Time Warrior

A Sontaran spaceship crash-lands on Earth in the Middle Ages. Linx, the sole occupant of the craft, is discovered by Irongron, a robber baron, and his men. Unable to effect repairs without help, he cuts a deal with Irongron. Supply a place to work and raw materials, and he will provide weapons by which Irongron can fight his neighbor, Lord Edward of Wessex, and take his castle. But these medieval supplies are not sufficient. Linx needs technical know-how, but for that he must steal from another time…

Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, the Doctor is helping the Brigadier investigate the mysterious disappearance of scientists from a top research center. Sarah Jane Smith, a journalist, infiltrates, posing as her scientist aunt. Sarah’s curiosity gets the better of her when she sneaks aboard the TARDIS, just as the Doctor gets a lock on a signal that seems to be the cause of the disappearances. Not long after their arrival in medieval England, Sarah is taken captive by Irongron. Not only must the Doctor rescue Sarah and send all the scientists back home, he needs to put an end to Linx’s tampering with Earth history before he finishes the repairs to his ship…

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 11, Jon Pertwee’s fifth and final season as the Doctor, gets off to a cracking start with what is arguably one of the best stories of his era. I certainly consider this my favorite Third Doctor story, and one of my all-time favorite Who stories. “The Time Warrior” was written by Robert Holmes–who has already proven himself as one of the best writers for the show–and was broadcast over Christmas and New Year, 1973-1974.

Aside from the story, which we’ll talk about in a moment, “The Time Warrior” is notable for some firsts. There’s a new title sequence, featuring a new “diamond” logo that will be a distinctive hallmark for years to come. We are introduced to Sarah Jane Smith, who will become one of the Doctor’s most beloved companions. This story also introduces the Sontarans, a clone warrior race with unforgettable potato heads. And it’s in this story that the Doctor first mentions the name of his home planet: Gallifrey.

The premise of the story is simple enough, as I described above. Since it’s only a four-parter, it doesn’t need to be overly complex, and it ends up working well. Linx and Irongron form a typical bad-guy alliance, where neither trusts the other, and plans the other’s demise once they get what they want. The Doctor and Lord Edward, on the other hand, form a typical good-guy alliance, based on trust, and working for their mutual benefit. There’s a lovely twist at the beginning where Sarah Jane is convinced the Doctor is working for Irongron, and works with Hal, Lord Edward’s archer (played by Jeremy Bulloch, who later played Boba Fett in the “Star Wars” movies), to capture him. Sarah’s initial conviction that this is all some kind of costume pageant is also beautifully played. Linx’s passion for a fight, and his disappointment with Irongron’s lack of courage heightens the tension in their shaky allegiance.

Character is one of Holmes’s strengths, and there’s no shortage of them here. Irongron is the blustering robber baron with a devious mind, and no patience for fools. Bloodaxe, Irongron’s loyal companion might be dismissed as a fool if it weren’t for his unshakable faith in his master, and his agility with the sword and the compliment. Lord Edward is a bit of a wet blanket, so it’s hardly any wonder he’s an easy target. His wife, Eleanor, however, is made of stronger stuff. Linx gives us one of the best new Who monsters in a long time. The concept of the Sontarans is pure genius, and Linx is perhaps one of the Classic Series’ best monster designs, as demonstrated by the part one cliffhanger, when Linx removes his helmet for the first time. Kevin Lindsey’s portrayal is perfect. His occasional poking out of the tongue is a small detail that adds so much to the character, and the strong rasping voice is just right for the stocky soldier. As for Sarah Jane Smith–wow! I can only imagine what it must have been like seeing her entering the scene for the first time, full of confidence and curiosity, a complete contrast with previous companion Jo Grant’s initial encounter with the Doctor. I was a few months shy of four when this story first aired, so Sarah Jane was a fact of life in my earliest Who memories. It’s no wonder she commonly appears among the top few on all-time favorite companion lists. Elisabeth Sladen’s performance is pitch-perfect, and absolutely convincing.

The show is not without its dodgy moments. Perhaps the one that makes me cringe the most is when the Doctor and Sarah Jane pose as monks to gain entrance to Irongron’s castle. They tell the guards they are there to collect alms from Irongron. The guards let them pass, and when they’re gone, the guards laugh at the idea that Irongron might give them anything but the end of his sword. I don’t know who they got to play these two guards, but their dialog comes out sounding like a bad high school performance of Shakespeare. And their laughter is so obviously forced, perhaps they weren’t paid enough to be believable.

I’ve also encountered criticism of Professor Rubeish, the almost-blind scientist who is whisked away by Linx, but doesn’t succumb to his hypnotism because of his poor eyesight. While the other scientists go about their work like zombies, Rubeish walks about freely, doing his own thing (like crafting a monocle from a piece of glass and some kind of machine Linx just happened to have in his makeshift workshop), and Linx doesn’t seem to care. This is a valid criticism, though Rubeish does seem to keep out of Linx’s way, and does prove to be useful to the Doctor in helping to break the hypnotic spell, and get the other scientists back home. So he’s not a complete waste of space.

As I said, “The Time Warrior” is a classic, and one of Robert Holmes’s finest. In my estimation, it is required watching for any Whovian. Aside from the story, the performances, and the drama, there are some classic lines. For example, when the Brigadier makes a smart remark to the Doctor about his recent detour to Metebelis Three (see “The Green Death”), the Doctor explains: “A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it is by no means the most interesting!” Then there’s Irongron’s description of the Doctor: “A longshank rascal with a mighty nose.” Yes, this story is well worth your time.

Who Review: The Green Death

Strange deaths at a Welsh coal mine catch the interest of U.N.I.T., particularly because the deceased have strange glowing green marks on them, and their deaths are otherwise unexplained. The Doctor is determined to visit Metebelis Three, now he has freedom to travel, and tells the Brigadier he’ll catch up with him later. Much to the Doctor’s disappointment, Jo is reluctant to go with him. It seems the marvels of the blue planet can’t compare to the need for action against Global Chemicals, and their new “Stevens Process” that, according to Nobel Prize Winning researcher, Professor Clifford Jones, can’t avoid producing gallons of waste that will destroy the environment. The Global Chemicals facility is near the mine, so Jo rides with the Brigadier to Wales, where they discover things are not as rosy as they are made to appear. Someone doesn’t want U.N.I.T. investigating the mine, or the deaths. And when they encounter giant deadly maggots, it becomes apparent why…

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 Green Death” is one of those landmark Who stories. It’s the last time the “howl-around” title sequence is used. It’s also the last appearance of that “Doctor Who” logo–at least until it was revived for the 1996 movie, and then for the BBC Books and Classic Who DVD range. This story also marks the end of Jo Grant’s time as the Doctor’s companion.

And what a story to go out on! Broadcast over May and June of 1973, it touches on a lot of concerns about the environment and globalization that were beginning to be voiced at the time. Of course, back then, issues with food supply weren’t quite the same as they are today. Sure, they had processed foods, but not nearly on the scale we do today. Add to that fast food, genetically modified foods, and not to mention the amount of preservatives and other chemicals that go into much of our food supply, the idea of natural, healthy, and cheap food is quite appealing. In “The Green Death,” however, the food aspect seems to focus more on using fungus to make protein-rich meat substitutes. And it’s not preaching vegetarianism so much as sustainability–the fungus can feed a lot more people a lot more cheaply than animal meat.

But “The Green Death” is not just a thinly veiled advertisement for a hippie lifestyle. (In fact, Professor Jones and his “Nut Hutch” colleagues are portrayed as intelligent and industrious, not doped-up drop-outs, which is how hippies are normally perceived.)  There’s a good, coherent story; indeed, two related stories: the mining deaths, and the Global Chemical controversy. Global Chemicals is producing a lot of waste which is being pumped into the ground which, in turn, is creating these over-sized maggots that are deadly to those they attack. In charge at Global Chemicals is a computer, BOSS, programmed for efficiency, even at the expense of human life. Professor Jones doesn’t believe destroying lives, which includes destroying the environment, is worth any financial gain.

This story is also a good lesson in how to write a six-part story without padding. Chekhov once famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Where this advice is ignored, you get padded stories with pointless plot lines. Where it’s heeded, you get stories like “The Green Death.” For example:

  • On his seemingly frivolous jaunt to Metebelis Three, the Doctor steals a blue crystal. That crystal becomes key to breaking the hypnotic spell BOSS has on people, and eventually causing the computer’s downfall. This is not the last we see of the famous crystal in Doctor Who…
  • Professor Jones’s fungus turns out to be the substance needed to destroy the maggots, and cure the green infection.
  • Jo’s preference for an apple over “eggs and bacon” validates her interest in Professor Jones’s work. And, eventually, Professor Jones. 🙂

Every part of the story advances the whole story, without any wasted scenes. This is hard to do over six or more episodes, which is why such lengthy stories gradually fell out of favor.

This is a good story for the supporting cast, especially Captain Mike Yates, who goes undercover and uses his smarts to get the information the Doctor needs to help bring down Global Chemicals. (The Doctor’s turns as a milkman and a cleaning lady are also quite entertaining–the first time we’ve seen the Doctor in drag since 1967’s “The Underwater Menace”!)

Some complain that the Welsh are patronized and treated unfairly in this story. And yes, there is a bit of stereotyping, isn’t there? Boy-o! However, I would also point out that the geniuses in the “Nut Hutch,” including Professor Jones, are all Welsh. So there is balance.

Considering 1973 technology and Who budgets, I think the maggots are quite well done. For distance shots, they used real maggots. But for close-ups, especially when we see maggots with teeth, they used models. Again, for the time, I think they’re quite effective.

Jo Grant makes her tearful farewell at the end, as the Doctor shares a glass of wine with everyone celebrating her engagement to Professor Jones. He gives her the Metebelis Three crystal as a wedding gift, and then, while everyone celebrates, he slips away, riding off into the sunset. This is the end of an era. Season 11 will introduce a new companion, and set the stage for the next era in the show’s history.

Who Review: Planet of the Daleks

The wounded Doctor lies on a pallet in the TARDIS console room while the TARDIS whisks him and his frightened companion to the planet Spiridon. There, Jo goes in search of help, only to be attacked by plant sap. Little does she realize that this sap will start to expand until it covers her, as it is beginning to cover the TARDIS. The Doctor awakens to find himself sealed inside, and his supply of oxygen running out. He is rescued by a group of men whom he recognizes as Thals from the Dalek home planet, Skaro. The Doctor encountered the Thals the first time he visited Skaro, back when he traveled with Ian, Barbara, and Susan. That time he helped the Thals defeat the Daleks. Now it seems the Daleks have enslaved the native Spiridons to discover their secret of invisibility, and are preparing a virus that will kill all life on the planet. With these weapons added to their arsenal, along with the thousands of Daleks hidden and waiting in suspended animation, they plan to conquer the galaxy. Can the Doctor, Jo, and this small band of Thals defeat the mighty Daleks and save the universe–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 story that began with “Frontier in Space” continues with “Planet of the Daleks.” The two form a sort-of six-part saga, though I don’t think they are so intimately connected that they can’t be watched as stand-alone stories. Certainly “Planet” picks up some plot threads from “Frontier,” but nothing that requires watching the whole of “Frontier” to grasp. All you need to know is that the Daleks are using Spiridon as a base for the army they have amassed in their quest for galactic domination.

“Planet of the Daleks” sees the return of Terry Nation to write for his famous monsters. One of the hallmarks of a Terry Nation script is a tendency to eschew hi-tech solutions and go for resourcefulness. Hence, the Doctor and his Thal friends fashion a parachute out of clear plastic (okay, so it wasn’t supposed to be plastic… but it was, you know what I mean?) so they could utilize the updraft from the heating system to escape the Dalek “city” via a vertical chute. They disable a couple of Daleks by pushing them into a frigid lake, then sneak into the Dalek city by hiding under fluffy purple Spiridon blankets (the invisible people use them to keep warm in the cold nights), with one of their number inside a Dalek (having removed the Dalek blob first). The Doctor wards off night creatures using a flaming torch when the blasters fail them. The Doctor even ignores his own sonic screwdriver to use a regular screwdriver (that one of the Thals just happened to have handy) to unscrew his recording device, out of which he fashions a radio signal jammer to disable a Dalek. Is it any wonder Terry Nation went on to write for MacGyver?

The story itself has, I think, fewer plot problems than “Frontier.” Terry doesn’t throw in useless plot threads just to pad the story. There is at least the appearance of cohesiveness, where a discovery in an early episode can impact a solution in a later episode. For example, the discovery of the cooling vents, which the Doctor and friends use to escape. These same vents deliver the icy goop that the Doctor will use to put the Dalek army in a very long-term deep freeze at the end of the story. Also, early on, the Thals plant bombs which the Daleks subsequently discover. The Daleks only detonate a couple of them, and Jo manages to salvage the rest. One of these bombs will be used at the end to blow open the cooling duct that will deep-freeze the Daleks.

I’m still a little mystified about the Doctor’s injury at the beginning. It’s possible he was shot by the Master, but it’s just a head wound. He’s recovered from worse before. Though this scene at the beginning of episode one gives us the chance to admire the TARDIS IKEA furniture.

There are a couple of unnecessary deaths, not because they didn’t serve a purpose in the plot, but because the situations in which the characters died were not life-or-death. Marat was gunned down by a Dalek because he didn’t want to crawl under a door to escape. He had plenty of time, and there was plenty of space between the door and the floor. Marat’s death was necessary for the plot because he had the map showing all the Thal bomb locations. But they could have at least made it look like death was his only option. And then there was Vaber’s death, shot by a Dalek as he tried to escape in the forest. My problem here is that the Doctor and the other Thals were later shot at by Daleks in the forest from about the same distance, but somehow the Daleks missed them all!

By the time “Planet of the Daleks” aired (April-May 1973), Katy Manning had, I believe, decided to leave the role of Jo Grant. I don’t think this had been announced to the public yet, which makes it all the more intriguing that a relationship between Jo and Letap, one of the the Thals, would be allowed to develop. This relationship resulted in Jo having to decide whether to go back to Skaro with Letap, or go with the Doctor. Had the audience known of Katy’s impending departure, they might have wondered if this was it. But Jo returns with the Doctor. And yet, once inside the TARDIS, she tells the Doctor she wants to go to Earth. “Home.” This scene truly marks the beginning of the end of Jo Grant’s time with the Doctor.

Not must-see who, but better than average, I think. Worth seeing if given the opportunity.