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Who Review: Meglos

Finding himself in the vicinity of the planet Tigella, the Doctor gets in touch with his old friend Zastor, leader of the Tigellans. His contact is timely, since Tigella is having problems with its power source, the “Dodecahedron.” This mighty crystal is worshiped by one faction of Tigellan society, and used for its energy potential by the scientists of the other faction. The scientists (“Savants”) want to run tests on the Dodecahedron to find out why they are having power fluctuations. To the religious Deons, this is blasphemy, and they won’t let the Savants anywhere near it. Zastor invites the Doctor to come and help mediate the situation, and assist with their troubleshooting. But this isn’t the only problem for Tigella. The Dodecahedron is actually from neighboring planet Zolfa-Thura, and Meglos, the cactus-like last of the Zolfa-Thurans, wants to reclaim it and use its power to exact revenge. He has recruited a band of space pirates to assist him, but the Doctor’s arrival could cause problems, so he traps the TARDIS crew in a time loop. When they break free from that, Meglos uses a captured human to adopt humanoid form. He then takes on the likeness of the Doctor, and arrives on Tigella ahead of the TARDIS. Meglos know that the Tigellans anticipate the Doctor’s arrival, so they won’t be suspicious when the Meglos-Doctor shows up. And then, when the Meglos-Doctor steals the Dodecahedron, they will capture the real Doctor when he arrives, leaving the way clear for Meglos to complete his plan…

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 eighteenth season of Doctor Who, as the show entered the 1980s, new producer John Nathan-Turner gave the aging program a much-needed overhaul: new titles, new theme music, more “modern” sounding incidental music. As part of this eighties renovation, Nathan-Turner and new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead were eager to find new talent to write stories for the show. This is how television newbies John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch got the opportunity to write “Meglos” for Doctor Who, though it would be their only contribution to the series.

It seems Nathan-Turner wasn’t all that impressed with the story, but pushed forward with it due to time constraints. I don’t think it’s at all bad, to be honest. Sure, the science vs. religion thing is a bit of an old trope (and one that continues to annoy me), but that’s just one of the tension points in the story. Indeed, once the Doctor arrives, the Deons are more cooperative–at least until the Meglos-Doctor steals the Dodecahedron, at which point they capture the real Doctor and offer him as an appeasement sacrifice. Naturally, the sacrifice is drawn out, consisting of being tied below a large boulder suspended by four ropes that are gradually burned until the last one gives out and the boulder squishes the victim. I’m not entirely sure, and it’s never explained, why this elaborate process is necessary, other than to buy time for Romana and Zastor to come and save the day, which they do.

Another thing that bothered me is the fact that the Doctor suggested there was a “doppelganger,” and the Tigellans appeared to understand what this German word means. But how? This isn’t a unique phenomenon to Doctor Who, of course. I’ve seen plenty of sci-fi shows and movies where aliens throw around French and German phrases. Why would the Tigellans understand the word “doppelganger”? Why did the Doctor even use that word, as opposed to talking about a “double”?

Unfortunately, the plants are a bit of a design failure. A nice attempt, but they don’t look organic. The cactus is probably the best fake plant, and the best effect has to be the cactus-human and cactus-Doctor. It’s pretty creepy, actually. And Tom Baker relishes the opportunity to play the bad guy, which adds to the creepiness of the hybrid. Having the human inside the Meglos-Doctor struggle for control was a good twist, especially since the human in question appeared initially to be a bit weak. When Meglos is eventually forced out of the human, he resumes a cactus form, but this time he’s deflated and squirms away. A nice idea, but not very well done, I’m afraid. Again, the costume fails to look anything other than a costume.

At the end of the story, the Doctor is summoned back to Gallifrey. This gives us a link into the next story, and spells the beginning of the end for Romana…

As I said, “Meglos” is a good story, though not spectacular. While some of the effects leave a lot to be desired, many others are at least acceptable, if not good. Tom Baker’s performance is, as always, top-notch, though he looks a bit sickly (I think Baker was ill at the time). We have some glimpses of humor, just enough to remind us that he’s still the Doctor. Since I recommend the season, of course I recommend “Meglos.” But it doesn’t rise to the level of “must-see.”

Who Review: The Leisure Hive

The Doctor misses the opening of Brighton Pavillion in England… again! So Romana suggests an alternative holiday location: the Leisure Hive on Argolis. They turn up in time to see a demonstration of the Tachyon Recreation Generator, a device that can duplicate and manipulate matter–a real draw for the tourists. And this Leisure Hive needs tourists. Thanks to the emergence of other leisure planets in the area, Argolis is close to bankruptcy. Their only hope is to sell to the Foamasi, reptile-like creatures against whom the Argolins waged a twenty-minute war some years ago. The Foamasi seem like ideal customers since they are able to live in the highly radioactive outdoor atmosphere of Argolis. But the Argolin leadership refuse to accept their offer. It seems someone is trying to force their hand as the Doctor and Romana witness an attempt to sabotage the Tachyon device, leading to the death of a tourist. This is only one of a series of deliberate attempts to disrupt Argolin equipment. The Doctor and Romana try to help, but find themselves instead the objects of suspicion. Their only hope of getting away is to discover who is responsible for the mysterious deaths, and 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 Leisure Hive” launched Doctor Who’s 18th season, and it did so with a kick up the 80s. New producer John Nathan-Turner decided the show was getting old and silly, and needed a breath of fresh air. He commissioned a new version of the theme, a new title sequence, and even a new wardrobe for the Doctor. Nathan-Turner didn’t like the overly-comical turn the show had taken over the last season, so he dropped much of the humor, and hired Christopher Bidmead to take over script editing duties. Bidmead sought out scripts that would bring a more serious edge to the show, employing “real science” at the service of science fiction. As the season progressed, Nathan-Turner’s overhaul of the show would see the departure of Romana and K-9… and eventually the Fourth Doctor himself. But that’s to come…

David Fisher penned this story, and, being the competent writer he is, came up with an interesting premise. The idea of “leisure planets” will be taken up again in the New Series, when the Tenth Doctor and Donna visit the “resort planet” Midnight. Argolis was built in response to the war against the Foamasi (an anagram of “Mafiosa”). That it was a twenty minute war demonstrates the show hasn’t completely lost its sense of humor. The Argolins want to dedicate themselves to peace, and the Leisure Hive stands as a reminder of their bloody past, and their determination to make a better future.

But not all the Argolins are on-board with this plan. In a clever twist, we learn that the Tachyon Recreation Generator is not about recreation (i.e., having fun), but re-creation. Pangol, the youngest of the Argolins, turns out to be a “child of the generator,” the only successful survivor of an old cloning experiment. He wants to use the machine to duplicate, or re-create, clones of himself that will form a new and powerful army. With this army, he intends to rebuild the Argolin race and defeat their enemies (which, to his xenophobic mind, are legion), starting with the Foamasi.

The Doctor puts an end to Pangol’s plan by using the TARDIS randomizer to destabilize the Tachyon Recreation Generator, thus producing an army that eventually disappears. In this nimble piece of writing, we are reminded that the Doctor’s travels have been guided by the randomizer for fear that the Black Guardian might catch up with him (see Season Sixteen’s “The Armageddon Factor”). Even the Doctor and Romana don’t know where they will end up when the TARDIS dematerializes. However, at the end of “The Leisure Hive,” the Doctor elects to leave the randomizer attached to the TRG. It seems he’s fed up of running from the Black Guardian, and wants to be able to go wherever he wants. The Doctor bypassed the randomizer to travel to Brighton and then to Argolis; this is a more permanent solution.

The concept of Tachyon Particles is a real scientific thing. These are hypothetical particles that can travel faster than light. In this story, the hypothetical is made real, thus delivering on Bidmead’s promise to re-anchor the show in “real science.”

The best effect of the whole story has to be the Doctor’s “old” make-up, when he is aged by the TRG. It looks quite convincing. The Argolins’ make-up and costumes aren’t bad, but I’m afraid that’s about it for the production compliments. The external models look like models, and the reptilian Foamasi look like costumes, complete with stitching and dry, solid eyes that don’t even attempt to look like living matter.

And I have to ask, why wasn’t K-9 aware that his sea water defenses were faulty? He’s usually pretty good with his diagnostic checks. I’m surprised he went head-long into the sea oblivious to  a problem that seriously compromises his safety. I suspect JN-T wanted rid of the dog no matter what–even if the excuse was seaweed limp. His opening shot is different–a slow pan of the beach that takes a couple of minutes to get to the TARDIS, and then the Doctor asleep on a deck chair. I’m not sure it works, though, especially for a young audience who would be getting restless after the first ten seconds. Perhaps the fact he never tried anything like that again says a lot.

“The Leisure Hive” is worth watching, if only for it’s historical value. I remember when it first aired, I was shocked at the new “star field” title sequence, and the synthesizer-based theme. The old theme and titles had been in use for ten years, so it was the only theme I ever knew up to that point. In fact, I believe my exact thought was, “What have they done to Doctor Who?!” Ironically, this arrangement of the theme ended up being my favorite. And this face-lift was long overdue.

Who Review: Shada (Untransmitted)

Professor Chronotis, a Time Lord posing as a Cambridge University lecturer, unwittingly lends an extremely powerful book to one of his students. The book is powerful because it reveals the location of the Time Lord prison planet Shada. Chronotis “borrowed” the book from Gallifrey, and, since he isn’t supposed to have a TARDIS (he’s retired), has called upon his old friend, the Doctor, to return the book for him. But when the Doctor and Romana arrive, he realizes he no longer has the book, and struggles to remember what he did with it. Meanwhile, an evil genius named Skagra wants to construct a “Universal Mind” filled with knowledge from all the greatest criminals. To complete the task, he must access Shada. His search for the planet’s location leads him to Professor Chronotis, and eventually the Doctor, who must prevent Skagra finding Shada. If Skagra completes his task, he will use this “Universal Mind” to take over the universe…

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!

“Shada” was supposed to be the season 17 finale, broadcast in six parts over January and February, 1980. The production team managed to complete outside filming, and made a good start on studio recording. But before the in-studio scenes could be completed, a technicians’ dispute at the BBC brought everything to a stop. Once the dispute was settled, Christmas 1979 was fast approaching, and a number of TV specials that had been put on hold were given studio priority. Doctor Who would have to wait its turn. And eventually time ran out. “The Horns of Nimon” broadcast as the season 17 finale, and “Shada” was shelved. In-coming producer John Nathan-Turner tried a number of times to have the story remounted, but eventually admitted defeat in the summer of 1980. The story remained a thing of legend until 1992, three years after the end of the Classic Series, when Nathan-Turner managed to procure the rights to the story from Douglas Adams, and released all the completed scenes, along with linking narration by Tom Baker, on video. This is all that remains of the original “Shada,” but it’s enough to give a sense of what the complete story would have looked like.

Many fans were excited to see “Shada” for the first time in 1992–even if close to half of the story is missing–having heard about it. But, as so often happens with the stuff of legends, the reality can be disappointing. At least it was to some. Not me, however. I think it’s a shame it wasn’t finished and broadcast, as it would have helped justify an otherwise dodgy season. “Shada” and “City of Death” were the only redeeming features of a lackluster and inconsistent season seventeen. It’s not Douglas Adams’s best, but close to it. The story has depth and the characters are interesting, with the final reveal about Professor Chronotis being perhaps the biggest surprise.

Adams was known for being a well-spring of creative ideas, and “Shada” is full of them. There’s Skagra’s invisible space ship, which was much beloved by the production team since it was very cheap. Also the ball that chased people and sucked out all their knowledge and memories. And then there’s the idea that a book can be dangerous, and the Professor’s study could be a TARDIS. Adams has Skagra initially wandering around Cambridge wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a carpet bag–an odd visual that works because Skagra is an alien trying to “fit in.” Finally there are the Kraag, the monsters of the story, made of crystal with fire at their core.

There are some points that bothered me. First, when Chronotis dies, Romana isn’t surprised he doesn’t regenerate, even though he didn’t say anything about being on his last regeneration. In Cambridge, during the chase scene between Skagra’s knowledge sphere and the Doctor, we linger for a while on a group of singers. It’s a nice interval, but completely pointless. They add nothing to the story. David Brierley provides K-9’s voice, thankfully for the last time. As I’ve noted in other stories of this season, I don’t like his characterization of K-9. His inflections are too human, and give K-9 too much personality for a robot dog. And, lastly, there’s a scene where the Doctor gives Romana a medal for reminding him of something very important to the story. This comes across as patronizing, a bit childish, and, again, pointless.

A number of the special effects work quite well. The sphere that chases people and sucks their minds is well done, and the Kraag costumes aren’t bad either.

“Shada” isn’t must-see Who. Indeed, a number of fans weren’t able to see it for nearly thirteen years, so it won’t hurt your Whovian credibility if you never get around to it. But, given the opportunity, I recommend you take it. As one of Douglas Adams’s best Who scripts (as well as his last), it’s worth your time.

Who Review: The Horns of Nimon

The planet Skonnos was once the center of a powerful empire, but no longer. In an attempt to reclaim its former power, the Skonnans have made an agreement with the Nimon, a double-horned creature of great power. In exchange for weapons, and assistance with rebuilding their empire, the Skonnans give the Nimon tribute in the form of young people from the neighboring planet, Aneth, and hymetusite crystals that provide nuclear energy. However, the final shipment of tribute malfunctions and disappears from the Skonnan radar. The TARDIS materializes outside the ship, and the Doctor extends the TARDIS’s defense shields to provide safe passage for himself and Romana. Once on the ship, they encounter the tribute–a small group of boys and girls barely out of adolescence–and the nervous, self-serving co-pilot, who has taken command at the death of the pilot. Between them, the Doctor and Romana get the ship going again, using some of the hymetusite crystals. But when the Doctor returns to the TARDIS, the co-pilot sets off for Skonnos, leaving the Doctor stranded in the path of a fast-approaching, planet-sized asteroid. Somehow, he must reunite with Romana, and help the inhabitants of Aneth escape the clutches of the Skonnans, and the dreadful Nimon…

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 last broadcast serial of season 17, “The Horns of Nimon” makes the final case that the show needs a breath of fresh air. The silliness and goofiness that has pervaded the previous couple of stories doesn’t abate–in fact, it abounds. Watching the first scene with the TARDIS crew, you have to wonder whether this is a Doctor Who parody, or if the production team are still in pantomime mode (it was broadcast from December 12, 1979 to January 12, 1980). For a number of reasons, as I will soon enumerate, this is probably my least favorite Doctor Who story.

What’s sad about that assessment is the fact that the story itself isn’t to blame. Made during any other season, with a different production team and script editor, it would have fared much better, I think. The basic story is of a deal cut between the people of Skonnos and the Minotaur-like Nimon. Skonnos provides Nimon with power crystals and tribute (basically, young humans from which to feed), and the Nimon provides Skonnos with weapons and help restoring the empire. The Skonnans are represented to Nimon by Soldeed, a manic soothsayer-type, who also presents the Nimon’s requests to the people. Soldeed believes he is manipulating the Nimon, saying what he/it wants to hear and dutifully providing the tribute, meanwhile reaping the greater benefits of the relationship. At one point, one of the Skonnans questions Soldeed about this, noting that such an imbalance usually portends something ominous. Soldeed poo-poos the idea, but he is too quick to dismiss. As we later learn, there isn’t just one Nimon, but many, many Nimons, and they are utilizing the power of black holes to travel from planet to planet, draining them of their resources like parasitic nomads. They have about used up all the people and resources of their current base, Crinoth, and are set to invade Skonnos to do the same there. The tribute and crystals provided by the Skonnans are, in fact, the tools of their own downfall, as the Nimon makes use of them to give them the strength and power they need for their work.

As I said, this is a good premise for a Doctor Who story, and script writer Anthony Read (Douglas Adams’s predecessor as Script Editor) is to be commended for it. The main problem is there is so much whimsy, comedy, and hyper-melodrama added to the story, it’s hard to take it seriously. At one point, the Doctor, Romana, Seth, and Tika (two youngsters from Aneth) are hiding from the Nimons behind large consoles. The atmosphere of the show, and the way the Nimons move around, make me want to yell “Behind you!” like a small child watching pantomime.

The character of Soldeed is very theatrical, played with large gestures, and larger-than-life bravado and mischief. He is the classic villain, with an evil laugh, booming threats, and a showy, drawn out death scene. In short, he fits the mood of the serial. At one point Soldeed even calls Romana a “hussy”!

The Doctor makes an interesting comment, when he spins the TARDIS to make it bounce off an oncoming asteroid (whose idea was that?). He notes how he would have been “a great slow bowler.” This could be taken as an (unintended) foreshadowing of his next incarnation!

I have to say, Romana II is probably my least favorite companion. Mary Tamm’s Romana I was a lot more restrained, and far less like the Doctor, which was good. Romana II gets particularly shouty in this story. Excessively shouty, in fact. The dialog between Romana II and the Doctor can be witty, but often it’s nonsensical, and they sound like a pair of full-of-themselves undergrad students.

Amidst the budget-challenged effects (which includes model shots recorded on video, which never look as good, and some dubious firearms), there are some good and well-executed ideas. I like the corridors that change their configuration, so they are like an impossible maze. (Since the Nimon is based on the Minotaur, it only makes sense he has a labyrinth.) And the final explosion model shot, which was recorded on film, is probably the best effects shot of the whole story.

To sum up, don’t bother. Okay, if you’re the die-hard, completist Whovian, watch it, but you have been warned. For the rest, don’t panic. Things do get better. 🙂

Who Review: Nightmare of Eden

An interstellar cruise ship with many passengers on board materializes out of hyperspace to find its shipping lane occupied by a trade ship, causing the two to merge in a kind of dimensional crossover. It appears to be an accident, but the cruise ship’s navigator is clearly under the influence of some kind of narcotic. The TARDIS appears on the cruise ship close to the point of collision, and the Doctor immediately volunteers his services to separate the two craft. However, he is soon distracted from his task by the discovery of Vraxoin, a dangerous and addictive drug, on the ship. This is most likely what affected the navigator, causing the collision with the trade ship. The Doctor is also taken with a strange device brought on board by a couple of passengers: zoologist Tryst and his assistant, Della. The device is a C.E.T., Continual Event Transmuter, which the zoologist is using to store parts of planets in small, crystallized form, ostensibly for the purpose of preserving them. It was on one of these planets, Eden, that they lost one of their team, presumed dead when attacked by monstrous creatures called Mandrels. The Eden project interests the Doctor greatly, but Tryst and Della are reluctant to revisit that location. Nevertheless, both Romana and the Doctor make use of the C.E.T. to visit Eden. And what they discover is the stuff of nightmares…

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!

Bob Baker penned this story, his first solo outing from his regular partnership with Dave Martin, with whom he wrote a number of previous Who stories. This is one of those Who serials where there’s a good premise, and it’s not badly written but it suffers from lack of budget, some bad acting from extras, and, yet again in the Douglas Adams era, too much humor.

The central theme of the story is drugs. We have drug smugglers and drug abuse dealt with quite frankly, which is good, though the dialog can be a little preachy on the subject. The navigator is high on Vraxoin, which leads to the collision with the trading ship. Though it’s not all as it seems, since the pilot of the trading ship is in cahoots with Tryst, the zoologist, to smuggle the substance from “Eden” using the C.E.T. device. The Mandrel monsters from Eden are carriers of the drug, as the Doctor discovers when he accidentally electrocutes one of them, causing it to reduce to dust. In the end, the Doctor catches the bad guys as they are making off with their Vraxoin by containing their ship within the C.E.T., and projecting them back onto the cruise ship. As I said, this could make for a solid Doctor Who story, and if you can ignore a lot of the silliness, the painful acting (like I noted, mostly from the extras–the main cast is very good), the low-budget sets, and the pantomime monsters, it’s actually worthwhile.

But there’s the rub. It’s hard to ignore a lot of the flaws, many of which I’m sure had nothing to do with Bob Baker. And I don’t doubt the budget had a part to play, though the production team have managed better with as much before. Perhaps the most striking effects fail is when K-9 cuts a hole in a metal wall, and the Doctor and Captain Rigg strain to remove the piece of wall. Then a Mandral appears in the gap, and the Doctor swiftly replaces the wall on his own! The model effects suffer for being captured on videotape as opposed to film, and I’m sure the effects people were not happy about that. Film is simply more forgiving than videotape.

What can I say about the Mandrals other than, what exactly were they thinking? They don’t look at all frightening. I’m sure someone has described them as Muppets, and that would be quite an apt description. At the end when the Doctor leads them off the ship and into “Eden,” he does so blowing his dog whistle like the Pied Piper. And then he disappears into the woods, and all we hear are growls, and the Doctor’s moans and shouts, culminating in, “Oh my fingers, my arms, my everything!” This might be funny to some, but to me it’s more pantomime than serious children’s drama.

To sum up, “Nightmare of Eden” has potential, but that potential is overshadowed, and undermined, by the comedy. Add to that some wonky effects, and you have to wonder if anyone was taking the show seriously anymore at this point. Watch it if you want, but I wouldn’t insist on it.

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.