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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: The Brain of Morbius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Review: Pyramids of Mars

The TARDIS is thrown off course and ends up in a stately home in 1911, among a collection of Egyptian artifacts. It seems the house is the Scarman family home, and there are some strange things going on there. A Dr. Warlock takes the Doctor and Sarah to a hunting lodge on the grounds where they meet Lawrence Scarman, scientist and brother to the archaeologist, Professor Marcus Scarman, who has recently returned from an expedition in Egypt. Lawrence shows the Doctor his marconiscope, from which he has received some odd signals. The Doctor identifies them as a message from Mars: “Beware Sutekh!” The Doctor explains that Sutekh was the last of an alien race called the Osirians who was chased across the galaxy and supposedly defeated on Earth by his brother, Horus. The Doctor, Sarah, and Lawrence go to the house to investigate, and there they witness a black masked, black robed so-called “servant of Sutekh” kill a man by gripping his shoulders and burning him. The man in black reveals himself to be Marcus Scarman. But he is no longer the man he was. Something happened to him in Egypt, and as a result, the entire created order is in danger from the might of Sutekh the Destroyer…

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!

Despite what the credits say, this story was pretty much a complete Robert Holmes re-write of a script offered by Lewis Greifer. What we end up with is one of the great Who stories of all-time. This review will be positive. Sure, I could nit-pick at the mummy costumes, but they really aren’t all that bad. And, of course, the CSO is not as good as it would be today, but–of course it’s not! This show was broadcast in October and November of 1975. The effects are about as good as you’re going to get for the time.

In short, this is MUST-SEE Who. I could end the review with that, but I’ll give you some reasons why this is such a good serial.

First, Sarah enters the TARDIS Console Room wearing one of Victoria’s dresses. Victoria was a Second Doctor companion he picked up in the Victorian era, so the dress is sort-of appropriate for the story. This is a nice touch, an homage to Sixties Who we don’t often see in 70s Classic Who. The Doctor then vents his frustration about being tied to U.N.I.T., and not wanting to go back to London. This is yet another nail in the coffin of the U.N.I.T. era. We’ve already said goodbye to the Brig (at least until 1989), and we’ll see Harry and Benton for the last time in the next story. But here, it sounds like the Doctor is making a conscious decision to leave U.N.I.T. But he doesn’t really. He’ll never stop being their chief scientific adviser, and he’ll continue to use that position when it’s advantageous for him.

Another notable point is the Doctor’s reference to his respiratory bypass system, which allows him to use an alternate means of breathing, thus giving the appearance of death. I think this is the first time it’s mentioned.

The Doctor takes Sarah “back” to 1980 so he can show her what the world will look like if Sutekh is successful. I think a previous story also indicated that Sarah is from 1980, which sets this era of the show in the near future. We need to remember that when this story first aired, the idea that it would be available on video tape and DVD for people to re-watch was not even a consideration. As far as the production team was concerned, it would be aired, enjoyed, and mostly forgotten–especially little details like Sarah being from 1980. But now, we can compare Sarah Jane Smith’s 1980 with actual 1980 and see how far off they were. It’s not really fair to fault them, though I wonder why they felt the need to give a year. I don’t think it mattered to the story.

To stop Sutekh using Marcus Scarman to steal his TARDIS, the Doctor says the controls are isomorphic, so Scarman will need him to operate the TARDIS. I think this is also a first mention of a concept that comes up now and again. Whether or not the TARDIS controls are actually isomorphic, or whether they are only so when the Doctor remembers to configure them to be is up for debate. It’s certainly true that other people have used, and will use, the TARDIS aside from the Doctor (e.g., Romana, River Song).

One story error–Sarah remarks that the puzzle in the pyramid on Mars (the “childish strategem”) is like the puzzles on the planet of the Exxilons (see “Death to the Daleks” in Season 11). This observation is accurate, but not from Sarah since she never actually saw any of the puzzles on Exxilon.

What really sets this story above many others though, is the combination of the script, the acting, and the atmosphere. Up to this point, producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and script editor Robert Holmes have been dabbling with “gothic horror.” Well, here they go full-bore. The echoes of the classic “Mummy” movies are resounding, and not just by the nature of the story (and the fact there are robot mummies). The lighting, the set designs, the mood combine to give this story a classic horror feel. If the whole story had been shot on film, that would have been the finishing touch. However, budgets wouldn’t extend to studio filming, so only the location shots are on film.

One of the best executed effects (at least IMO), is when Marcus Scarman is shot, and then the smoke from the shot seems to suck into him. This is done by playing the shot backwards and splicing the reversed section into the scene, but it’s so well acted and edited together, it looks seamless.

A couple of acting nods. First, the possessed Marcus Scarman is utterly chilling, and played with such conviction by Bernard Archard. Marcus’s brother, Lawrence, is played by Michael Sheard, who has been in the show a few times before. His performance is unusual in that he is visibly shaken by Marcus’s “death.” It’s not often in Classic Who that you get a sense of grief from characters at the traumatic events happening around them. It was, after all, still considered a children’s show, and too much time spent digging into feelings detracted from the action. But Lawrence’s face, voice, and actions show his heartbreak and devastation louder than any words on the page. Very well done.

As I said, “Pyramids of Mars” is, without doubt, must-see Who. There’s perhaps a little more violence than usual, with a man being crushed to death, another shot, and one man burned alive, but there isn’t any blood, and the camera shies from showing too much. Classic Who doesn’t get much better than this.

(And if that wasn’t enough, the DVD has one of the most entertaining extras, “Oh Mummy!” which tells the story of Sutekh post-“Pyramids of Mars.” Very funny.)

Who Review: Carnival of Monsters

His exile over, the Doctor planned to use his first post-exile self-piloted trip in the TARDIS to visit Metabelis 3. However, he and Jo end up on the SS Bernice, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. They are caught and held as stowaways, but manage to escape, only to find that no-one on the ship remembers them, resulting in them being recaptured multiple times. And everyone seems to repeat the things they said and did only ten minutes before. If this wasn’t strange enough, a Plesiosaurus rises from the ocean, causing panic on board the ship.

Meanwhile, on the planet Inter Minor, members of the ruling class oversee the arrival of their first alien visitors since opening up to foreigners. The two Lermans, Vorg and Shirna are “entertainers,” and the main feature of their act is a miniscope, which they brought with them. This device contains miniaturized life forms from various galaxies, which can be viewed in their habitats on a screen. Among their collection is a vessel containing “Tellurians”–people from Earth. Only there seem to be a couple of extra Tellurians roaming around inside the miniscope…

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!

At the end of “The Three Doctors” (the previous serial), as a thank-you for saving their planet (and the rest of the universe), the Time Lords release the Doctor from his exile. At last, the production team are free from the shackles of Earth imposed on the show by their predecessors at the end of the 60s! This story, therefore, marks the first time the Doctor has flown the TARDIS himself, unaided by the Time Lords, since 1969.

“Carnival of Monsters” was broadcast over January and February of 1973, and was written by Robert Holmes, his first Doctor Who script since “Terror of the Autons” in 1971. I’ve probably said this before, many times, but I consider Robert Holmes to be the finest Doctor Who script writer of the classic series, perhaps one of the best in the show’s history period. And he doesn’t disappoint with this imaginative and well-written story. The idea of the Doctor and Jo trapped inside a carnival peep show along with other “specimens” is irresistible. But Holmes doesn’t stop there. The people of Inter Minor are not all like-minded. In fact, we see shades of opinon, from the president, who wants to open the planet up to alien visitors, to some of his highest officials–including his own son–who disapprove quite strongly. These dissenters consider aliens to be lesser creatures, and resent having to treat them with respect. They conspire to have the Lermans deported, but then hit upon a new scheme that would discredit the president and have one of them succeed him.

It was not uncommon for Who writers in the 1970s to draw upon current events for their stories. On January 1, 1973, the UK’s 1971 Immigration Act came into force, giving opportunity to Commonwealth citizens to live and work in the UK. That same day, the UK joined the EEC, or the European Economic Community, often referred to as the “Common Market”–a precursor to the modern European Union. Those opposed to these measures feared foreign labor taking the jobs of natural-born Brits, and the loss of British independence. I don’t doubt these things influenced Holmes as he developed the script for “Carnival.”

Despite the budget and technology of the time, I think the design and production team did about as well as they could for this story. The set depicting the interior of the miniscope works well, and even the Drashigs are about as monstrous a monster can be when you don’t have the luxury of animatronics and CGI.

The cast of characters Holmes developed are nuanced and well-conceived. Vorg is the consummate showman, willing to bluff his way through any situation, and always on the look-out for a patsy to con with the old “three magum pods and a yarrow seed” trick. Shirna, his young assistant, is a willing accomplice, though she has more of a conscience, and will eventually tell the truth, especially when it’s evident Vorg’s lies aren’t working. The three Inter Minor leaders we encounter, Kalik, Orum, and Pletrac, are not of the same mind. Kalik is the conniver, scheming his way to power, while Pletrac wants to play by the rules.

This serial sees the Doctor make use of his sonic screwdriver to ignite gas to scare away Drashigs. However, when Jo suggests he use it to escape the ship’s cabin, he tells her it only works on electronic locks. In future Doctor who stories, the Doctor will lament that the sonic screwdriver won’t work on wood.

A few other things of note. The Cybermen make a brief appearance as one of the creatures in the miniscope. This is one of only two appearances they make in the Third Doctor’s era, the other being as a hallucinatory image in “The Mind of Evil.” Terrance Dicks has made no secret of the fact that he hates the Cybermen, which explains their absence during his time as script editor. Finally, in a scene where the Doctor is working on the miniscope, Vorg turns to Shirna and says, “You know, Shirna, he could lose that nose of his just like that.” Holmes will write another reference to the Third Doctor’s nose in “The Time Warrior.” Clearly he thought it quite a distinguishing feature! 🙂

This is must-see Who, if only because it’s Robert Holmes, and I think every Whovian should be familiar with all of Holmes’ stories. But it also happens to be a great four-parter, well worth your time.