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Who Review: The Creature from the Pit

While cleaning out Storage Bay number four in the TARDIS, Romana comes across a Mark Three Emergency Transceiver. Originally a part of the TARDIS, the Doctor removed it because it meant the Time Lords could send him off chasing distress signals. Romana reattaches it and immediately sends the TARDIS off chasing a signal. They end up on the planet Chloris where their attention is drawn to a what the Doctor believes to be a large metallic shell. They soon encounter the local rulers, led by Adrasta, who keep control through her Huntsman and the vicious wolfweeds, balls of plant life that attack upon command. On their way to Adrasta’s palace, their capture party is set upon by bandits who make off with Romana. She learns from her captors that metal of all kinds is a scarce and precious commodity. The Doctor, meanwhile, is concerned for Romana’s welfare, and from Adrasta learns about the pit that is the fate of all who oppose her. It seems there’s a creature at the bottom of this pit that deals with anyone unfortunate enough to drop in. Adrasta wants to learn more about the metallic shell, to know what the Doctor knows. The Doctor is far more interested in the creature, so when she leads the Doctor back out to where the shell and the pit are, rather than face her weapons, he jumps down the pit…

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!

David Fisher returned to write this story, though I detect the strong influence of Douglas Adams, especially in the humor. And there are a lot of one-liners, witty comments, and facetious remarks, which are not uncommon for the Fourth Doctor, but here perhaps too much. The story begins with K-9 reading “Peter Rabbit” to the Doctor, which is a bit odd. Very Douglas Adams (the incongruity of a computer dog reading a children’s story), but not very Doctor Who (at least to me). I don’t have a problem with the Doctor being funny, but there’s seems to be a tongue-in-cheek attitude that pervades the whole story, even to the supporting cast, which undermines the drama.

The premise of the story is that of an alien ambassador, Erato, coming to the planet to trade. The people of Chloris need metal, whereas the people on the ambassador’s planet, Tythonus, are in need of plant life. Adrasta, however, wants to keep control of the planet’s metal supply as a means of maintaining power, so she imprisons the ambassador in a pit. That way, metal remains scarce and valuable, making Adrasta rich and powerful. Adrasta uses fear of the creature in the pit to manipulate people, throwing them in with Erato if they disobey.

This isn’t a bad premise, and creates some interesting conflicts between Adrasta and her followers, the bandits and scavengers who will go to murderous lengths to get metal, and Erato, who simply wants to be set free to return home. Things get a little more complicated when the Tythonians shoot a neutron star at Chloris as retaliation for the capture of their ambassador, but the Doctor helps Erato neutralize the threat. The method he uses (having Erato cover the star with metal, and the Doctor then using a gravity beam from the TARDIS to pull it off course) seems preposterous, even though the basic idea was suggested to David Fisher by members of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. Of course, that doesn’t automatically make it a good idea. Which it isn’t.

Despite some iffy plot choices, the story isn’t bad, and might be forgiven much if it weren’t for a number of things. First is the overabundance of humor, which I’ve already noted. Second is the failure of many of the effects, particularly Erato himself. The big blob with a huge proboscis was a tall order for an effects team on a small budget, but what they ended up with was not at all frightening, or even intimidating. One of the effects people put a pincer on the end of the proboscis so it didn’t look quite so… um… rude. But it was beyond saving. Erato has to be one of the biggest Who monster fails in the show’s history (along with the dinosaurs in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”).

The wolfweed perhaps look better than Erato, but move like they are being pulled by string (which they probably are). K-9 blasts one of them, but then is unable to continue blasting them when they start engulfing him. Surely he could have kept shooting at them to keep them off? K-9 is voiced by David Brierley, not John Leeson, who, for whatever reason, was not available this season. Brierley’s K-9 voice is much more animated than Leeson’s, sometimes sounding condescending and impatient. In other words, he sounds too much like a human doing a computer voice. It’s as if Brierley didn’t even try to mimic Leeson’s characterization, which is unfortunate.

I was a little perplexed by the episode three cliffhanger, in that I wasn’t sure exactly what the cliffhanger was. The Doctor puts the communication shield on Erato, which will enable him to talk. Adrasta screams, “NO! NO!” and that’s it. Did I miss something? In the following episode we learn why Adrasta doesn’t want Erato to talk, but at this point we have no clue as to how the Doctor, Romana, K-9, or anyone else is threatened by this shield being placed on Erato. Where’s the danger?

To sum up, if you’re a completist, or a die-hard Whovian, you don’t need my counsel, you’ll watch it anyway. For the rest, feel free to skip “The Creature from the Pit.” It adds nothing to our appreciation of the show, and it doesn’t do either David Fisher or Douglas Adams any favors.

Who Review: City of Death

The TARDIS randomizer lands our heroes in Paris, France, 1979, which is just as well since the Doctor and Romana are in need of a holiday. In a café, a local artist attempts to capture Romana’s likeness, but runs away when she turns to look at him. Not impressed with his picture, the Doctor decides to take her to the Louvre, where she can see some real art. A strange disturbance in time affects them while in the café, and again while they are in the Louvre. The Doctor falls into the arms of a strange woman, while Romana steals a strange looking bracelet from her wrist. The bracelet is not of Earth origin, but the detective pointing a gun at the Doctor certainly is–from England, in fact. Together, the Doctor, Romana, and their new detective friend, Duggan, investigate the strange time disturbances, which leads them to the Count and Countess Scarlioni, who are not pleased with their meddling. And our friends soon discover why: the Count is involved in selling copies of valuable works of art, but the forgeries look incredibly like the real thing. Not only that, but he’s conducting some volatile experiments in time travel. All is not what it seems with the Count, and the Doctor, Leela, and Duggan need to get to the heart of it, before the Count’s true intentions come to fruition–intentions that could bring life on Earth as we know it to an end…

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 original story for this serial was written by David Fisher, but re-written by script editor Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams (Fisher was unable to complete re-writes himself). As a result, the script that was eventually used for the show was more Douglas Adams’s work that either Fisher’s or Williams. Given BBC policy that members of the production team could not also receive writing credit, the show was broadcast as written by “David Agnew.”

If you are familiar with Douglas Adams’s work (THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DIRK GENTLY), you can hardly fail to notice his fingerprints all over this serial. And of his contributions to Doctor Who, this story is by far the best. First, there’s the idea of an alien scattered throughout Earth’s history, trying to nudge the human race to the point where it develops the technology necessary for him to time travel back to when his spacecraft exploded so he can prevent that happening. And then the alien funds his experiments by selling art, his biggest project being the sale of six Mona Lisas, all painted by Leonardo DaVinci, and hidden away by his fifteenth century self for his 1979 self to find and sell. In itself that’s a fascinating premise for a story, but why should the Doctor get involved? Because that alien spaceship’s explosion all those years ago triggered evolution (Adams was an atheist and, hence, committed to the theory of evolution). If the spaceship doesn’t explode, the human race would never exist. This is why the Doctor has to stop him.

The alien, Scaroth, a Jagaroth, is disguised as Count Scarlioni, who lives in Paris with his wife, the Countess. Julian Glover, an actor who has played a Bond villain (in “For Your Eyes Only”), as well as having parts in “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and “Game of Thrones,” plays Scaroth/Scarlioni, and does an excellent job. Catherine Schell plays the Countess, and she too plays the part very well. There’s a charming, understated quality to their performances that play off the Doctor’s humor and antics wonderfully.

The English private detective, Duggan, who is assisting the Doctor and Romana on this adventure, acts more like an American “hard-boiled” private eye. His character was actually originally based on the 1920s British fictional “adventurer” Bulldog Drummond. Again, a wonderful performance by Tom Chadbon, who plays Duggan with more muscle power than brain power, which, given the high-powered intelligence of the Doctor, Romana, and Scaroth, provides a much-needed balance.

Episode one opens with an amazing model shot that I’m not sure today’s CGI technology could better. The alien landscape of prehistoric Earth is perfectly captured on film, as is the Jagaroth ship taking off. For some reason, this same scene doesn’t work as well when we return to it in episode four. Maybe it’s the difference between film and video tape? I’m not sure.

K-9 gets left behind again. We aren’t told why–perhaps the Doctor hasn’t finished putting him back together again (see “Destiny of the Daleks”)? In any case, the TARDIS randomizer has dropped them in Paris, so the Doctor and Romana want to take advantage of this opportunity for a holiday. This also afforded the production crew the opportunity to film the outdoor sequences on location in Paris, France–the first time in the show’s history a non-British location has been used.

It does boggle the mind a bit how the Countess could not have known that her husband is really a green, slimy, one-eyed alien. He wore a mask to conceal his non-humanoid face, but what of the rest of him? Was she really only concerned with the trinkets and title he provided, and never with any intimacy that might have betrayed his true form? That’s a bit of a stretch.

There’s an interesting discussion toward the end, when the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan note that there are now seven Mona Lisas, six of which have “This is a fake” written under the paint in black felt-tip pen (thanks to the Doctor’s visit to DaVinci). Duggan feels this is wrong, that the Doctor has devalued the painting. Experts will x-ray the paintings and discover they are forgeries (which, of course, they aren’t since DaVinci painted them all). The Doctor makes the observation: “Serves them right if you have to x-ray it to find out if it’s good or not. You might as well have painting by computer!” His point is that the value of the painting is not determined by monetary value, based on its authenticity. The true value of the painting is in the eye of the beholder. Hence, whether or not it says “This is a fake” is irrelevant. As a work of art, it should be appreciated for what it is, not what it isn’t.

I would say this story is must-see Who. Douglas Adams only wrote three or four stories for Doctor Who, and while he was script editor for this season, script editing was not his forte. So, as an example of what Adams was really capable of, it’s well worth your time. None of the rest of the season really does him justice.

Who Review: Destiny of the Daleks

The new TARDIS randomizer takes our heroes to a planet of dust, rocks, and high radiation. With K-9 in pieces (and suffering from laryngitis), it’s up to the Doctor and the newly-regenerated Romana to investigate. The first curious thing they observe is a group of shabbily-clad people burying one of their dead under a pile of rocks. Next, they feel a series of underground explosions, like some kind of mining operation. Then they see a spaceship land, with its bottom half drilling into the surface of the planet. The explosions cause rubble to fall, trapping the Doctor, and burying the TARDIS. While Romana leaves to get help, the Doctor is rescued and taken prisoner by a party of white suited, silver haired people. From them, the Doctor discovers they are on the planet Skaro, and these white suited people, Movellans, are at war with natives of Skaro: the Daleks. Romana, meanwhile, soon finds herself a prisoner of the Daleks, and consigned to work the mines with the rest of the ragged people. It seems they are searching for something that was buried there a long time ago. Something they need to gain a tactical advantage in the war. However, the Doctor’s biggest concern is for him and Romana to somehow escape with their lives, which they may not be able to do without getting involved…

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!

A new season of Doctor Who kicks off with a new script editor–Douglas Adams. And while he is not the sole writer of any of the televised stories this season, his input and influence is clearly discernible. We see a marked increase in the humor, and that particular humor that Adams is well-known for, which doesn’t always work for Doctor Who.

Indeed, Adams’s mark is felt on the show from the outset with Romana’s regeneration. Mary Tamm decided to leave at the end of the previous season, but since Romana is a Time Lord (or Time Lady), there was no need to get a new companion. Romana could just regenerate. I daresay Mary’s departure was unknown to Terry Nation when he was commissioned to write “Destiny of the Daleks,” so it was left to the new script editor to take care of this scene. In the hands of Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes, or even Anthony Read, we might have had a scene in which something fatal happens to Romana (a deathly illness, for example), followed by the traditional cross-fade change from Mary Tamm to Lalla Ward. But Douglas Adams is not one for sticking to convention. Instead, he chooses to riff on the Fourth Doctor’s costume change scene from his first story, “Robot,” resulting in a, frankly, ridiculous sequence where Romana tries on different bodies. That her new look is a copy of Princess Astra from last season’s finale, “The Armageddon Factor,” is less problematic than the fact that her regeneration has no rhyme or reason. Given that Time Lords only get to regenerate 12 times, you would think Adams would have provided a significant motivation for Romana to cast off her old form. There are Whovians who find this “regeneration” funny and delightful. I don’t. Sorry! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Douglas Adams’s writing, but I don’t think his humor always hits the right note at the right time. And this was a miss.

The observant viewer might also notice that K-9 doesn’t feature in “Destiny.” We’re told that he’s suffering from laryngitis (another Douglas Adams touch?). As I understand it, John Leeson, who usually voices K-9, was not available this season, so Dalek voice actor Roy Skelton provided his coughs and croaks for this story.

We get into the story proper once the Doctor and Romana leave the TARDIS. From here on, it’s not a bad tale with a fairly solid internal consistency. The core of the story is the idea of two opposing forces at a stalemate because they both operate on the basis of pure logic. To break the stalemate, they need to introduce an organic, irrational factor. For the Daleks, this means digging up their creator, Davros–the one they exterminated and left for dead at the end of “Genesis of the Daleks” four years ago. The android Movellans were initially hoping to find Davros first and prevent the Daleks gaining this tactical advantage. Then the Doctor comes along and, lo, they now have their own irrational factor–if he can be persuaded to join their cause. Since both the Daleks and the Movellans want the same thing–universal dominion–the Doctor’s not very keen for either side to win. His solution is to neutralize both sides, and work on the side of the oppressed slave labor that the Daleks brought in to help find Davros.

As I said, it’s a good idea, and works well. However, in the outworking of this, there were some problems. First, when the Doctor encounters Davros, he looks dead. Then, for some reason, at the end of episode two, his life support kicks in, his hand moves, and his little blue head light comes on. What triggered this? Did the Doctor accidentally flip a switch? Was it the mere presence of his old adversary that kicked his systems into life? Who knows! He just springs into life on cue for the episode cliff-hanger. And then there’s the Movellan power unit, which, for some wacky reason, is located on the waist, plain as day, waiting for someone to figure out what it is and pull it off, leaving a limp and lifeless android. You would think such a vital piece would be better concealed and protected. Finally, why is it that the Daleks are restricted to seeing through their eye stalks? I hadn’t really thought of this before, but watching “Destiny” made me realize that this is a serious design flaw. The Daleks are wandering around corridors searching for the Doctor and other intruders, limited only to what they see with their eye pieces. For all their fancy gadgetry, they don’t have radar, or heat sensors? If they did, they would have saved themselves a lot of time otherwise spent trundling down empty passageways.

On the whole, the acting is good. Tom Baker is superb, as always. Lalla Ward makes a good debut playing a Romana who is a bit more self-assured and playful than her predecessor. I thought she overdid the screaming when she fell down a not-very-long shaft, but otherwise she did a fine job. The original Davros actor, Michael Wisher, wasn’t available, so David Gooderson takes the role this time. He does a passable job, but his voice doesn’t quite capture the same intensity and sinister quality that Wisher gave it. One particularly creepy scene is when the Daleks are sent off as suicide bombers to destroy the Movellan ship. Seeing them with explosives strapped to their sides, like modern-day terrorists, is a little unnerving.

Overall, this is a good story, and worthwhile, though by no means a classic.

Who Review: The Armageddon Factor

There’s only one more segment of the Key to Time for the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 to find. The tracer leads them to the planet Atrios, which is in the midst of a devastating war with neighboring planet Zeos. Despite heavy casualties, the Atrian Marshall believes victory is close at hand. However, Princess Astra, sole survivor of Atrios’s ancient royal family, wants peace with Zeos and for the bloodshed to cease. But her attempts to communicate with Zeos go unheeded. When the TARDIS crew arrive, they are, of course, suspected of being Zeon spies. It doesn’t help that Princess Astra is abducted around the time of their arrival. The Doctor becomes convinced that Astra is the key to finding the sixth segment, so it is critical they find her. But all is not as it seems. Danger is close at hand for the Doctor and his friends as dark forces lurk behind the scenes. Someone will stop at nothing, even to the point of using those closest to the Doctor, to get the Key to Time…

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

The final story in the “Key to Time” arc was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, a writing team whose previous efforts (“The Mutants,” “The Three Doctors,” and “The Hand of Fear” to name three) demonstrate they know how to do the job. While their Who stories are not always the best, most are good, and I think “Armageddon” is one of these better ones. They manage to keep “padding” down to a minimum (which is always a challenge for a six-parter) by making sure all the various story elements contribute to the plot, and they keep a good pace, with plenty of drama and humor in the script to maintain interest.

Episode one starts with what appears to be a scene from a soap opera, or some kind of propaganda film that extols the virtue of sacrifice for the sake of victory. The fact we see this on the television screens in the ruins of the hospital, filled with the wounded and dying, helps orient us to the situation on Atrios. The power-hungry Marshal will bleed the planet dry to win, but Princess Astra sees only death and destruction, and wants an end of it.

Slowly we peel back the layers of what’s going on. Astra’s messages to Zeos don’t ever seem to get through. Not even a bounce-back. The Marshal’s strange conversations with a mirror, and the little black cube on his neck. The way the tracer, the stick used by the Doctor and Romana to find the segments of the Key to Time, is drawn to Princess Astra, as if she is somehow connected to it. Then there’s the “Shadow,” who introduces himself as the Doctor’s adversary. Like the Doctor, he has been sent by a Guardian on a special quest. But as his name suggests, the Guardian he works for is not White, like the Doctor’s. This is all good use of the six parts, allowing the story time to unfold.

When the Doctor finally seems to figure out where the sixth segment is, one might wonder why he doesn’t simply retrieve it and leave. The way Baker and Martin have woven the plot makes it impossible for the Doctor to leave without dealing with the Marshal and the Shadow. The Marshal pilots a ship to launch a missile attack on Zeos. This will trigger the computer on Zeos to self-destruct, taking Zeos, Atrios, and anything else in its vicinity with it. And even if the Doctor manages to stop the computer, the missile strike will ultimately have much the same effect. The Doctor uses the Key to Time, with a fake sixth segment, to hold off the Marshal’s attack, but because it is impure, it will only hold him off for a limited time. By the time the Doctor is sure of the location of the sixth segment, there’s no time to replace the fake one with the real one. For a Who story to work, the writer needs to find a compelling reason for the Doctor to stick around and not just get back in the TARDIS and leave. Baker and Martin do a good job of that here.

With regard to that sixth segment, it appears as if the Doctor understood the secret early on. But later, he still seems uncertain. Perhaps the look of surprise when the Shadow tells him he’s been looking at the sixth segment all along was feigned, though I’m not sure. Romana certainly seems in the dark, though she notices the way the tracer reacts to things Princess Astra has worn. It’s only at the very end she cottons on. Maybe they both didn’t want to believe it, given what it would mean…?

This story introduces a new Time Lord: Drax, who was in the “Class of ’93” with the Doctor (or “Theta Sigma” as he calls him). Unlike the Doctor, Drax failed his exams in the Academy, and ended up traveling the universe as a repair man. He built the computer on Zeos for the Shadow, but was then imprisoned. Throwing Drax into the story in episode five could be seen as “filler,” but he does play an important part in helping the Doctor defeat the Shadow. He’s an interesting character, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing show up in the New Series.

The conclusion to the story, and the “Key to Time” arc is both understandable and unsatisfying. The Doctor sums up the dilemma well in his creepy “there is no more free will” speech that his gives to Romana with eyes rolled back. “I can do anything I want because I have the Key to Time!” he tells her. And he’s right: no-one should have that kind of power. It’s just a shame it took all this time and traveling to figure it out. If it wasn’t for the fact that many of the stories have been enjoyable, and the Doctor and Romana have been a pleasure to watch, one might be forgiven for calling the whole escapade a waste of time.

To sum up, this is a good story, and worth the Whovian’s attention. Possibly the saddest part is the fact it’s Mary Tamm’s last as Romana. Of the two Romanas, she’s my favorite. I like the fact we see her grow from arrogant academic to being a student again, and Mary does such a good job of showing that growth. In the hands of the right script writer, she could have developed her character further for another season or two. But that wasn’t to be.

Who Review: The Power of Kroll

The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 continue their quest for the six segments of The Key to Time. According to the tracer, the fifth segment is located on the third moon of the planet Delta Magna. Surprisingly, the moon’s surface is covered with grass land and swamps, and is inhabited by green-skinned people whose dress and weaponry suggest they are relatively primitive. But they aren’t the only people on the moon. A crew from Delta Magna has set up a methane refinery, and are mining the moon for its large deposits of methane gas. The native inhabitants, whom the crew call “Swampies”, believe this mining activity will disturb their giant swamp god, Kroll, and bring disaster. The Swampies plan to strike back, and a gun runner, hired by an unknown supplier, is providing them with weapons to that end. Not long after their arrival, Romana is captured by the Swampies, believing her to be one of the “dry foots.” They plan to sacrifice her to appease the wrath of Kroll. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds himself an involuntary guest of the refinery crew, who accuse him of being a “Swampie-lover,” and suspect he is an emissary of the group supplying guns to the natives. The crew leader, Thawn, has a particular animosity toward the Swampies, and hence a vitriolic intolerance for those who might be siding with them. With K-9 stranded in the TARDIS (he doesn’t handle water very well), the Doctor and Romana need to find the fifth segment and escape before they suffer the wrath of Thawn, or the wrath of Kroll…

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 fifth story in the “Key to Time” arc was broadcast over Christmas and New Year of 1978/1979, and was written by the awesome and inimitable Robert Holmes. As we might expect of a Holmes story, there are some vivid characters and an interesting plot. On one level this is a story about racism, since the “Swampies” are not considered of equal worth to humans by the colonists. This story is also about colonialism, and not just the obvious (i.e., British colonialism), but also the co-opting of Native American lands in the United States by the white men. The “Swampies” formerly inhabited Delta Magna, but were shipped off to this third moon by these Earth colonists. When that moon was found to be rich in methane, the colonists planned to displace the “Swampies” yet again in order to mine their land. If that’s not enough, you also have a subtle parody of peace protesters who are not averse to using violence to make their point. In “Kroll,” the “Swampies” are being supplied weapons by a gun-runner who it is believed work for the “Sons of Earth”–a pacifistic organization that promotes equal rights for the “Swampies.” While it turns out this group wasn’t actually supplying the guns (a nice plot twist), the point is made that they wouldn’t be above doing that kind of thing to achieve their ends.

Even with all that story layering going on, this is considered to be one of Holmes’s less-than-stellar efforts. I don’t know that I agree with that assessment. There are a number of things that let the story down, but not many of them have to do with the story itself. The giant tentacle that attacks Harg is profoundly unrealistic, and hearkens back eight years to the tentacles that attacked the Third Doctor in “Spearhead from Space.” The “Swampie” acting is a bit theatrical, and pushes credibility. Helping their unrealism is the fact that their hair is made from strips of dark green thick knitted pads sown together and frayed at the ends. And when the great Kroll makes his appearance (he’s a ginormous giant squid), well, he’s not quite as impressive as I’m sure the production team hoped he would be. Actually, I take that back. Kroll’s very first appearance at the end of episode three is impressive. The shot of Kroll sitting in the water, tentacles slowly waving on either side, and the little boat in front for perspective, is possibly one of the best effects shots of the Classic Series. That does look believable. From then on, however, all the shots of Kroll suck.

And then there’s the scene where our heroes are tied to a rack with vines. The theory is that as sunlight streams through the small porthole in the roof, the vines dry and shrink, pulling on the rack and stretching the victims. It’s a neat theory. I have no clue if it would actually work in real life. Might not the vines in fact become brittle as they dry out? Would they really shrink that much?  As I said, it’s a clever idea, if a bit fanciful. I’m far more concerned with the way they escape: the Doctor singing a high-pitched noted that breaks the glass and lets rain in to swell the vines. This is such a deus ex machina escape, it’s not worthy of a writer of Holmes’s caliber. After all, if the Doctor has had this ability all along, I’m sure there are plenty of times he could have used it to escape tight situations. Why suddenly remember he could do that now?

There are some first-class performances on the story, especially from Philip Madoc. Madoc has played bad guys on the show before (most notably The War Lord in “The War Games”), but this time he is one of the colonists who, while not a “Swampie” lover, doesn’t want to see them come to harm. Unlike his superior officer. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm are excellent (I don’t think Tom Baker ever put in a bad turn as the Doctor). And John Leeson, usually the voice of K-9, gets to act in front of the cameras, which is nice to see.

I like the fact that the “monster” attacking Romana at the end of episode one turns out to be a “Swampie” in a monster costume. I’m sure there were plenty of people watching the cliffhanger saying, “That’s so obviously a man dressed up!”–and it actually is in the story. Nice. I also liked the Doctor’s line: “Progress. That’s a very flexible word. It can mean almost anything you want!” Very true, both in this context, and many others.

I would recommend “The Power of Kroll,” even though it’s not a must-see. Despite its shortcomings, the story is strong and interesting, and there are some good twists and performances.

Who Review: The Androids of Tara

Continuing the quest for the six segments of the Key to Time, the tracer takes the TARDIS to the idyllic, Earth-like planet of Tara, and a country on the verge of crowning a new king. At a designated hour, Prince Reynart must be ready to receive the crown, otherwise he will forfeit the throne to the next in line, his cousin, Count Grendel of Gracht. Grendel’s plan is to hold Reynart’s beloved Princess Strella captive to persuade him not to go through with the ceremony. When the TARDIS lands, Romana goes off to find the fourth segment while the Doctor catches up on some fishing. Romana quickly locates the fourth segment, but encounters a wild beast. She is rescued by Count Grendel, who offers her rest–in fact, he insists. Grendel observes the striking resemblance between Romana and the Princess Strella, and is convinced she must be an android. Romana narrowly avoids being cut up for parts, but ends up in Grendel’s prison along with Strella. Meanwhile, the Doctor has been captured by Reynart’s men and employed to repair an android they hope to use as a decoy to faciliate Reynart’s safe entry into the castle. But things go awry, Reynart is captured, and now the Doctor and Romana can’t leave until they deal with Grendel, and see Reynart installed as the rightful king of Tara.

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 is the second story in a row from David Fisher, and unusual in that Romana finds the fourth segment of the “Key to Time” at the beginning. However, just as Romana tries to leave with it, she is captured, the Doctor is captured, and they spend the rest of the story trying not to get killed, and saving Prince Reynart and Princess Strella from the evil machinations of Count Grendel.

“The Androids of Tara” is a fairly solid story, unashamedly based on The Prisoner of Zenda, which tells of a prince imprisoned on the eve of his coronation, and the use of a double to impersonate him so the coronation can go ahead. Of course, in the case of the Doctor Who story, all the doubles are androids. In a lovely twist, skill in electronics and cybernetics is viewed as peasant work. Usually in sci-fi, such skills are reserved for the elites and the intellectuals.

It also gives Mary Tamm a lot of screen time since she takes on four roles. Not only does she have her regular part as the Doctor’s companion, Romana, but she also plays Princess Strella, and both Romana and Strella’s android counterparts. I have to say, the android acting in the story is quite good. Especially from Prince Reynart, who we probably see as an android more often than as a real person.

I’m afraid I can’t be quite as generous with regard to the “beast” that attacks Romana just as she retrieves the Key segment. A furry body suit and a solid “monster” mask are hardly going to convince anyone. But I supposed they did what they could with the money they had. To make matters worse, the man in the suit acts like a demented gorilla–I’m not exactly sure what he was trying to achieve.

The setting of the story is interesting. Tara seems to have a Renaissance feel to it, certainly with the castle and the costumes–possibly an homage to the original Zenda story? And yet they use laser arrows and electric swords, so there is a mix of old world style with new world technology.

Perhaps the highlight of the story is the sword fight in episode four between the Doctor and Count Grendel. The Doctor feigns stupidity to begin with, but soon proves himself to be the better swordsman in a battle that takes them beyond the courtroom, out onto the castle walkways over the moat, where the Doctor claims victory, and the Count swims away.

Some of the less-than-stellar moments include the imprisoned Reynart hitting a helmeted soldier with a manacle, and knocking him unconscious, which seems a little far-fetched. Also, when Grendel lays siege to the Doctor in the cottage, he knows the Doctor is unarmed, so why didn’t he send his men in? As it is, he gives the Doctor plenty of time to make good his escape by means of a back door cut by K-9. And then there’s the stunning inability to tell the difference between an android and a real person, most notably when Romana is mistaken for an android facsimile of Strella. Could they not tell by her body temperature, her pulse, her involuntary reflexes (e.g., swallowing), and her breathing that she was not an android? Or are their androids that complex and detailed? It’s also a little annoying that Romana keeps getting captured. She’s not that helpless!

All in all, despite its flaws, this is a good Who story. One to watch if you have the opportunity, but not a must-see.

Who Review: The Stones of Blood

The 100th Doctor Who story finds the TARDIS crew tracking the third segment of the Key to Time to Earth. The tracer seems to think the segment is somewhere in an ancient stone circle, but as local surveyors Professor Rumford, and her colleague Vivien Fay, tell them, there are discrepancies in the records with regard to the number of stones that should be there. The tracer is unable to get a fix on the segment, so the Doctor and Romana decide to investigate further. What they discover, however, digs a little too deeply into things that certain locals would rather are left alone. Those locals make up a druidic cult that regularly holds sacrifices to the goddess Calliach in the midst of the stones. But the stones are not ordinary stones. The cult leader feeds them with blood, and they glow in response, as if they are alive. Is it possible that the stones are not of this world? Might that explain the strange indentations in the ground, and the confusion over how many stones should be in the circle? As the Doctor and Romana get closer to the truth of the cult and the stones, the more they put their lives in danger of powers that even the villagers couldn’t have imagined…

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!

Not only is “The Stones of Blood” the centenary story, but it also broadcast during Doctor Who’s fifteenth anniversary week. Quite an achievement for a show that faced cancellation more than once in the Sixties. By November of 1978, it was a national institution with high ratings and widespread cultural recognition. And with Tom Baker in the leading role, it had never had a more iconic and enthusiastic advocate and spokesman. This was, indeed, a great time to be a Doctor Who fan.

The first TARDIS scene has the Doctor pointlessly recapping for Romana the premise of the “Key to Time” arc. Okay, so it’s not entirely pointless. He takes the opportunity to let her know about the threat of the Black Guardian, something he had been told not to mention. But really, this recap is for the sake of viewers who either forgot what the “Key to Time” is about, or are joining late. We haven’t met the Black Guardian yet, but as we will discover, his headgear of choice looks like it’s supposed to be some kind of crow or raven. I wonder if that has any bearing in the fact that cult leader Mr. Dufrese has a crow that spooks Romana? A fore-shadowing, perhaps?

The story starts with some kind of druidic ritual, rite, or ceremony being performed by people in robes in a stone circle at night. It all looks very Dennis Wheatley-Hammer Horror, including the use of blood, though we don’t see an actual sacrifice. I’m inclined to take this as an homage to the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era of the show; it’s certainly the kind of thing they would have done. And I think that’s part of what makes “Stones of Blood” the creepy, atmospheric story it is. But it’s not just another “Talons of Weng-Chiang.” Part of the story takes place in space–hyperspace, to be precise–where the Doctor is put on trial by the shapeless Megara. So the story shifts between the dark and mysterious, to a galactic Perry Mason, where the Doctor plays games with legal technicalities to buy time for Romana. It’s an odd combination, but somehow it works.

This is a great story of strong female leads. Indeed, there are few male parts in the story. I don’t doubt this was at least somewhat deliberate, given the fact the show often came under fire for it’s treatment of female characters. Without doubt, the Doctor’s previous companion, Leela, was an attempt at a feisty female warrior, who was the equal of any man in combat. The new companion, Romana, is the Doctor’s intellectual equal, perhaps even better, and would be the smartest person in most rooms simply by showing up. Thankfully, though, these characters are not just for show, or to satisfy a demographic; they have depth and range, too. They are good characters, and well played. Professor Rumford and Vivien Fay are excellently conceived and performed, strong and forthright without losing a feminine sensibility; they’re not just “men in dresses.”

There are some particular points of interest in this story. First, the episode one cliffhanger doesn’t appear to be repeated at the beginning of episode two. The second part picks up right where we left off. That’s highly unusual for Doctor Who. On the spaceship, the Doctor takes out his sonic screwdriver to open a door, but instead of zapping the door, he uses the end of the sonic screwdriver to physically break the seal that locks it! A nice twist. There’s a scene where a couple of people out camping encounter the stones and are killed by them. While you don’t see anything really gruesome, it is still quite gruesome. I’m surprised the censors let that pass.

The model spaceship in “Stones” is very good, however, the CSO model shots don’t really work well for me. If they had used film, that might have improved things, which is a shame because it really is well crafted. The same goes for the stones. They did a good job making them look stone-y, but once they start moving, they lose all sense of weight.

Probably the biggest surprise is what the third segment is. The story sets you up to think it’s one thing, but it isn’t. It’s quite cleverly done. And I’m not going to spoil it for you. 🙂

This story isn’t on the must-see list, but it is very good and worth your time. Especially if you’re missing the Gothic horror of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes days.

Who Review: The Pirate Planet

The quest for the six segments of the Key to Time continues. This time, the tracer takes the TARDIS crew to the planet Calufrax. The Doctor’s attempt to land fails, so Romana tries, and succeeds. The Doctor suspects something’s not right, and not simply because Romana succeeded where he failed. Calufrax is supposed to be cold and uninteresting, but the planet they land on is warm and thriving. Indeed, an announcement declares a new age of prosperity for the inhabitants. The people seem happy enough, though they live in fear of the Mentiads, strange robed people with powerful mental abilities who live under the planet’s surface. But as the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 soon discover in their quest for the the second segment, the planet holds a secret that even its inhabitants don’t know about. Only the planet’s ruler, the bombastic Captain, and his crew have any idea what’s going on. And the truth is more horrific than the Doctor could ever have imagined…

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 is the first script submitted to Doctor Who by up-coming writer Douglas Adams. At the time, Adams’s radio play, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” had just been broadcast, and he was riding the wave of success from that. A second series was due, and a book adaptation. Nevertheless, as a life-long Doctor Who fan, he relished the opportunity to write for the show. What we have here is classic Douglas Adams: clever and witty, with characters that ride a fine line between real and parody. There’s a good story that comes to us in pieces but gradually forms a complete picture as the serial progresses.

The Captain is the bombastic pirate, pilot of the planet that hops around the galaxy devouring smaller planets, mining them for their minerals, then spitting out what’s left. His right-hand man, Mr. Fibuli, grovellingly submits to every command of the Captain. The two of them remind me of Hook and Mr. Smee from Peter Pan.  And then there’s the Captain’s “nurse,” who spends most of the story skulking in the background. Little do we realize how important she is to the plot until near the end. When we first encounter the Mentiads, they seem hostile, but the Doctor finds out they are very misunderstood. Indeed, they recognize that the Doctor shares their desire to bring down the Captain and stop his evil plan.

There’s not much I can fault with this story. Perhaps the biggest plot hole I can find is the fact that the planet Calufrax is the second segment of the Key to Time. So, if the Captain hadn’t destroyed it to mine it for minerals, the Doctor would have destroyed it to convert it back into the second segment. I suppose one could argue being the second segment of the Key to Time is better than being sucked dry and having one’s remains mounted for display. Either way, the planet was doomed.

What impresses me the most about “The Pirate Planet,” however is the sheer imagination of the story. Everything from the Captain’s robot parrot (that gets into a laser fight with K-9) to the real reason the planet needs to destroy all those planets and harvest their minerals.

A point of interest: The Doctor and Romana use jelly babies to break the ice with the residents of the planet. However when the Doctor leaves a trail of confectionery from his white paper bag to tempt a guard away from his hover car, the candies are clearly Licorice Allsorts, not jelly babies.

Also, when the Captain announces “a new golden age of prosperity,” he talks of there being “wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.” This same phrase was used in the previous story, “The Ribos Operation.”

Must-see Who? Almost. Douglas Adams’s next Who story, “City of Death” certainly is. But this one is worth watching, and is one of the best freshman efforts of Who’s many writers to date. I wouldn’t quite call it essential, though. Others may differ. 🙂

Who Review: The Ribos Operation

After leaving Leela and K-9 on Gallifrey, the Doctor and K-9 Mark II plan a vacation. But their plans are curtailed by an impromptu summons from the White Guardian. He has an important mission for the Doctor: retrieve the six segments of the Key to Time. It seems this key is very powerful, and in the right hands can restore balance to the universe. In the wrong hands, it can do untold evil. They Key’s power for good is needed, but its six segments are scattered throughout time and space. The White Guardian has chosen the Doctor to find all six segments and return the Key to him. As the Doctor prepares to leave, the White Guardian tells him he has given him a new companion to help, and to beware the Black Guardian–the White Guardian’s evil counterpart–who will no doubt want to take the Key from the Doctor.

Using a rod, called a “tracer”, to detect the segments, the Doctor and new companion Romanadvoratrelundar (Romana, for short) travel to the icy planet of Ribos. There they encounter a couple of dodgy salesmen who are trying to sell the relatively primitive planet to the Graff Vynda-K. The Graff is looking for a base planet from which he can build up an army to take back his home planet from his brother. They convince the Graff that Ribos is full of the rare mineral jethrik, and they show him some encased in the Ribos treasury as proof (planted there earlier, of course). When the Doctor and Romana visit the treasury, the tracer is drawn to the jethrik. However, the dubious pair take it back before the Doctor and Romana can get to it. And when the Graff calls the salesmen’s bluff, our TARDIS heroes are counted along with the conspirators. The Doctor and Romana need to get the jethrik and escape Ribos, or face the wrath of the Graff Vynda-K…

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 season sixteen, script editor Anthony Read and producer Graham Williams wanted to try something different: a series of stories connected by a unifying theme. Instead of the Doctor wandering aimlessly around space and time, they wanted to give him a purpose, a task to accomplish. They came up with the idea of the Key to Time, split into six segments, that the Doctor has to retrieve. Each of the season’s six stories would be devoted to finding a segment. This would mean each story could be self-contained, but would serve the overall story arc.

The idea of unifying the series around a theme is not bad, and we’ll see that happen again in Tom Baker’s final season (“The E-Space Trilogy” and “The Master Trilogy” in Seasons 18 and 19). I have my doubts about the whole “Key to Time” premise, though. It seems a bit flimsy. Why would the powerful White Guardian send the Doctor to gather these fragments? Couldn’t he do it himself? And why now? Of course, the whole venture will prove to be a waste of time in the end (see “The Armageddon Factor”), which only further undermines the premise. Nevertheless, it introduces us to Romana, and gives us another great Robert Holmes story to kick the season off.

“The Ribos Operation” presents us–or maybe just me–with another title issue (see “The Seeds of Doom” and “The Masque of Mandragora”). My instinct is to pronounce the name of the planet so it rhymes with “Why, boss?” It is, in fact, pronounced Ree-bos. So, there you have it for anyone else that was wondering. Probably just me. Moving on…

The story proper begins (after all the “Key to Time” setup with the White Guardian) with the introduction of Romana. She is a Time Lord (or Time Lady, I suppose), fresh from The Academy, with glowing exam scores and a lot of experiential naivete. In other words, she has a lot of book-knowledge, but she hasn’t set foot outside her own front door (so to speak). This forms the basis of her relationship with the Doctor. At first they clash because she’s a smarty-pants know-it-all, and the Doctor has been around the universe a few times, and understands the limits of book-knowledge. As time goes on, he will come to rely upon her smarts and her technical skill, and she will come to respect his wisdom and experience. But this is just the beginning, so sparks fly.

Being a Robert Holmes story, “Ribos” not only is well-written, with an engaging story, but it has interesting characters. There really isn’t a straight-up “good guy” in the story (aside from the TARDIS crew). Garron and Unstoffe are con men, and while Unstoffe appears to have a conscience, he’s not above lying to get what he wants, and he is easily impressed by Garron’s cunning. Garron is the quintessential shady dealer, but even he has a moment of moral indignation near the end. The closest thing we have to a “good guy” is Binro the Heretic, a wonderful creation who adds some great emotional depth to the story. Binro is an outcast, and considered wacko because he is convinced the stars are suns, that Ribos goes around its sun, and that there are other worlds like Ribos circling other suns. His brief but heart-felt friendship with Unstoffe is quite touching.

The Graff Vynda-K is the real villain of the piece. Garron and Unstoffe (played by Nigel Plaskitt, also famous for playing Hartley Hare and Tortoise in “Pipkins“) are just out to make a fast buck, but the Graff is bent on murderous revenge against his brother. His eventual demise at the hands of the Doctor is quite brutal and goes a bit against character for the Doctor. After all, the Doctor knew that what he did (spoilers!) would kill the Graff, but he did it anyway. And what a great name: The Graff Vynda-K! Where did Holmes come up with that one?

I like the fact that we have three different plans colliding in this story. The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 want the first segment to the Key to Time, which they suspect is the jethrik. Garron and Unstoffe want to make a lot of money by “selling” Ribos (it isn’t theirs to sell) to the Graff for a substantial sum, claiming it has vast, untapped supplies of precious jethrik. The Graff wants a planet to rule so he can build an army to fight his brother who usurped his throne on his home planet. Ribos appeals to him because of the supposed availability of jethrik, which he could use to fund his campaign. So all three parties have different reasons for being there, and all three want the jethrik for different reasons. This creates drama and tension, which makes for good storytelling.

The main weakness of the story is the shrivenzale, which is a large rubbery monster that walks the caverns, and is used to guard the treasury. Thankfully, while he provides the episode one cliffhanger, he is otherwise relatively inconsequential, though painful to watch.

I would consider most Robert Holmes stories essential viewing because they are usually well constructed, with three-dimensional characters and great dialog. “The Ribos Operation” is no exception to this, though it’s not quite a classic like “Ark in Space” or “The Talons of Weng Chiang.” So, maybe not essential Who, but very highly recommended, and well worth your time.

The Sad and Exciting World of Doctor Who

I just wanted to take a moment to share some Doctor Who news. First, the sad news:

Mary Tamm (1950-2012)

Mary Tamm, the actress who played the first incarnation of the Doctor’s Time Lady companion Romana in 1978, passed away on Wednesday. The death of any Who actor is a sad occasion, but Mary’s Romana was my favorite of the two Romanas, and one of my all-time favorite companions. Romana had just graduated from the Academy when she joined the Fourth Doctor–book-smart (she did better than the Doctor), but not very experienced. Mary’s portrayal was perfect. She she made her entrance in a long white dress, all imperious and condescending. Over the course of the series, the First Romana learned to respect the Doctor’s “street smarts” and even look up to him, despite his lesser intellectual standing. There was a great chemistry between Mary and Tom Baker, and it’s a shame she decided not to continue beyond her 26-episode run. But I’m thankful she put her all into the part, and we are left with a wonderful series of stories that will help us remember her for her grace, elegance, and talent. You’ll be sorely missed, Mary!

Here’s the full story on Doctor Who News. And here’s a clip of Mary as Romana:

New Series 7 Round-Up

On the “exciting” news front, the various parties involved with the next series of Doctor Who have been sharing some information about what to expect. First, of the 14 planned episodes these are the titles announced so far:

  1. Asylum of the Daleks (written by Steven Moffat)
  2. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (written by Chris Chibnall)
  3. A Town Called Mercy (written by Toby Whithouse)
  4. Cubed (written by Chris Chibnall)
  5. [Unannounced]
  6. [Unannounced Christmas Episode]
  7. [Unannounced]
  8. [Unannounced]
  9. [Unannounced]
  10. The Crimson Horror [Provisional Title]
  11. [Unannounced]
  12. Phantoms of the Hex [Provisional Title]
  13. [Unannounced]
  14. [Unannounced]

Episode 5 will be Amy and Rory’s last. This will be followed by the Christmas Special, which will introduce the new companion, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman.

Among the special guests that will be in the next series are: Rupert Graves (Lestrade in Sherlock), David Warner, Liam Cunningham, Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley in the Potter movies, who will be playing Rory’s father), Diana Rigg (Emma Peel in the original Avengers series, Tracy–the Bond Girl–in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and a lot more), and Michael McShane.

Next year is, as fans know, the 50th anniversary of the show, so we are to expect special  documentaries, and other “surprises” in celebration of this show, which has become in the UK a national institution. Here in the US, BBC America will be showing four documentaries in the run-up to the new series: The Science of Doctor Who (August 4th), The Women of Doctor Who (August 11th), The Timey-Wimey of Doctor Who (August 18th), and The Destinations of Doctor Who (August 25th). Does this mean the new series will start the following week (September 1st)? That might be implied, but nothing has been explicitly stated. I would say it’s possible, especially given that US TV schedules appear to be less flexible than BBC schedules. Announcements for when shows will run are given months in advance here in the US, whereas in the UK, the BBC may not announce a date and time until two weeks before! So, while there’s a good chance the new series will start in September, I wouldn’t mark the calendar until an official announcement has been made.

It’s been a sad year so far for Whovians, with the passing of beloved classic series actors, but it’s still an exciting time to be a Who fan. If you haven’t yet got into the show, there’s still time before the next series begins to catch up! The first of the new series starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, is available on DVD, and, I think, on NetFlix, Amazon Prime, and other services. And many classic series DVDs and episodes are also readily available from the same sources.

If you’re a Who fan, is there something in particular you’re looking forward to in the next series (or season for those in the US)?