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Doctor Who: The King’s Demons (parts one and two)

Fans often ask what in the sam hill producer John Nathan-Turner was thinking, deciding that Doctor Who needed a robot companion. These fans often forget that they were ever kids. When I read that Radio Times / Starlog 20th Anniversary magazine back in 1984, I was incredibly anxious to meet Kamelion, and incredibly confused that while he’s listed right there on page 20 as a companion, he isn’t mentioned in the previews for any of the forthcoming adventures.

Our son quite liked the appearance of Kamelion as well. It distracted from the Master showing up again, to his growling disapproval. Kamelion came about when its designers showed the robot to Nathan-Turner, thinking that an appearance on Doctor Who might be good for business. Nathan-Turner kind of went a little overboard with enthusiasm and made the robot a companion. Unfortunately, the robot required too much time-intensive and laborious programming to be reliable for a seat-of-your-pants TV show with frequent last-minute script changes, and then its chief programmer was killed in a tragic accident at sea. So instead of having the robot transform into a guest star of the week until they could write it out, they just didn’t mention it in any way whatsoever until they could write it out. Kamelion is completely forgotten onscreen, although fan writers and novelists have made sure that the robot had many more adventures.

Actually, you know what Kamelion reminds me of? In 1991, the designers of a much bigger robot showed it to Universal, thinking that an appearance on some new TV show might be good for business. Universal then sold NBC on a two-hour pilot called Steel Justice, in which a cop magically brings his dead son’s toy robot to life, leading to a twenty-foot tall “robosaurus” breathing fire at bad guys. The big difference is that Kamelion is probably housed in somebody’s collection, while the “robosaurus” can probably be seen at a monster truck show near you next weekend. (Nobody believes me when I tell them this, because the robot is just so stupid, but the whole angle of magically animating your dead kid’s toys made parts of that film quite eerie and odd. Nevertheless, NBC didn’t buy a series. Can’t imagine why…)

“The King’s Demons,” which was the last Who adventure written by Terence Dudley, isn’t all that exciting, but it’s a simple and short story which has lots of swordfighting and a joust, and an interesting collection of guest stars. Gerald Flood plays the imposter King John and provides the voice of Kamelion. Isla Blair and Frank Windsor play the local barons who are caught in the Master’s plot. I enjoyed how Windsor and his Softly, Softly co-star Stratford Johns both showed up in The Avengers a few weeks apart in 1968. It’s not quite the same, but Johns had been in a Who in 1982 and Windsor popped in the following year.

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Doctor Who: Enlightenment (parts three and four)

On one end of the spectrum, there’s that run of Doctor Who stories in 2013 which is all about the mystery of Clara, the mystery of Clara, the mystery of Clara. On this other end in 1983, you’ve got this seventeenish year-old alien who was hanging out in a posh private school and making secret murder contracts with immortal evildoers and practically nothing whatever was mentioned about it. I just can’t help but feel there’s a comfortable medium somewhere between them.

As annoying as it got in the spring of 2013 having every single story revolving around the Doctor investigating what his companion is up to and who she really is, it was still preferable to the cone of silence that was dumped on Turlough. This could have been so interesting. There are whacking great chunks of “Terminus” where Tegan and Turlough literally have nothing to do because the plot is happening elsewhere, but instead of writing some dialogue about this new character, all they say is “we’ve got to get out of here.” All of “Terminus” was a missed opportunity, but I’ll go to my grave thinking they could have improved things by having the two just sidelined and waiting and talking. “So where are you from, and what were you doing on Earth?” Even if Turlough didn’t want to answer these questions – I suspect that nobody had really bothered at this point to figure them out yet – why wasn’t the incredibly inquisitive Tegan asking them?

There are a few scenes in “Enlightenment” where Turlough does seem to act like a cowardly kid around seventeen years old. Usually, he’s not depicted that way. He’s a nebulous early-twentysomething in the hands of the scriptwriters, and just as every subsequent adventure is going to forget that this one ends with Turlough asking the Doctor to take him back to his home planet, every subsequent adventure is going to forget that the character is a teenager.

I shouldn’t complain. The program is just about to forget a character entirely. You want to talk about slapdash…

Fans sometimes debate whether the Doctor knew that Turlough was in league with the Black Guardian, and whether the Doctor had the right to put Tegan and Nyssa in such danger by bringing him on board without telling them his suspicions. I kind of like the friction between the Doctor and Turlough, and at least it gave Davison, who was very, very frustrated by the experience of making the show, something different to do.

I think the problem is that “Enlightenment” doesn’t have a payoff. We can guess that the Doctor knew the Black Guardian was behind this from the beginning and had taken lots of steps that we didn’t see to ensure his enemy would lose. I’ll find a thing or ten to complain about Steven Moffat’s six seasons when we get there, but credit where it could be due: Moffat would have made the end of “Enlightenment” completely spectacular, and Davison could have played the hell out of a tables-turning scene where the Doctor reveals that he was steps ahead of his enemy the whole time.

Instead, the Doctor just stands there. It’s not an impressive ending.

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Doctor Who: Enlightenment (parts one and two)

Our son has grasped the existential horror behind Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” quite well, I think. “They scoop out the memories of the people on the ship the same way we scoop ice cream out of a bowl and eat it!” He’s really enjoying the story. Part one ends with a terrific cliffhanger revelation, and the whole story is built around mystery, so it’s got his brain working overtime.

“Enlightenment” is the first story in the Doctor Who canon to be written and directed by women. It was Clegg’s only script for the program, but one of several serials in the early eighties that Fiona Cumming helmed. Familiar faces in the cast include Tony Caunter as one of the crew of this strange Edwardian-era racing yacht and Keith Barron as its captain.

I’ve always thought this was a good story, but not an especially gripping or thrilling one, so I’m glad that our son’s enjoying it, and giving the Black Guardian an appropriate level of evil eye action. But as much as he enjoyed the first cliffhanger, the second one fell flat. It should have been a memorable one – Turlough leaps to his apparent death rather than being stranded for all eternity on a spaceship he can never leave – but our son remembered that a character had literally just explained there’s an energy screen keeping them safe. “He’ll just land on the screen,” he interjected. As it will turn out, he doesn’t, but I’ve watched this a dozen times and never caught that.

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Doctor Who: Terminus (parts three and four)

In whatever time zone this is, there’s a company that accepts some kind of payment to cure the degenerative Lazar’s Disease. Doing this as cheaply as possible, they’ve learned that a certain kind of radiation works sometimes. So the company enslaves a bunch of ex-military grunts and gets them hooked on a drug. They use them as labor, along with a big wolf-dog monster that is not affected by the radiation. The old space station where this radiation can be found via an engine leak is monstrously unsafe, but the Company figures they’ve got decades before it fails, so they pay their slave labor with drug supplies that arrive on an automated drone ship with the latest batch of Lazars. They sit back and profit while the money’s still good.

If “Terminus” had been about that, it might have turned out entertaining. But all these pieces aren’t even put together until the final episode, and so this isn’t a story about the Doctor overthrowing a profit-obsessed “health care” company. “Terminus” is actually all guff about an exploding engine ending the universe, and running up and down lots of corridors that are just plastic sheeting and duct tape. Actually, because the sets are so small, the actors never even run to prevent the end of the universe, they just walk with urgency.

And I’ll tell you what sounds like the end of the universe: the drug addict guards wear these uniforms which are layers of armored plates of plastic molded to look like copper with a design of bones. Every time the actors move, you hear the constant squeaking and thumping of the plastic plates rubbing and bumping against each other. I wish the next time this story gets remastered for home video, they’d work on the sound mix and edit all that out.

“Terminus” was Sarah Sutton’s last story as Nyssa, as her character stays behind to improve conditions on the old space station. Nyssa gets a sweet final scene with the Doctor and Tegan, but she doesn’t say goodbye to the new character Turlough, who isn’t going over well with my family. Discussion after the story was centered around why the Black Guardian has drafted somebody so utterly incompetent as Turlough to kill the Doctor, and why he didn’t make an offer to an assassin or someone like Boba Fett. I think it’s because “eh, that’ll do” seems to be the mission statement of the producer and script editor this season. No wonder it was around this time that Peter Davison decided that he’d finish his three year contract and move on.

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Doctor Who: Terminus (parts one and two)

This being my blog and all, I wanted to indulge myself with a detour, but wasn’t sure where it would go. Then I remembered that Stephen Gallagher’s “Terminus” is one of the most boring Doctor Who stories ever and I didn’t want to watch it in the first place, let alone write about it. And it was taped toward the end of 1982, which I think was an important year when you’re talking about the look and feel of a videotape production versus a filmed one.

In the seventies, I think that there was a different perception. Doctor Who was made the way that most British television was made in the 1970s. It was three-camera, as-live videotape in the studio. There certainly were exceptions. All the programs that were made, typically by ITC, with an eye on sales to the United States were made on film, and so were a handful of shows, like The Sweeney, that were made by Euston Films. But the bulk of British programming from the seventies was made on color videotape. I love watching this style of production. It’s my comfort TV, if I may borrow that fine blog‘s title. Who may have been set on spaceships or on other planets, but it still looked and felt more like Upstairs, Downstairs than Battlestar Galactica.

But expectations changed, and I’m afraid that you can thank America for that. One of the first places that younger audiences saw a change in expectations was in the world of music videos. MTV launched in August of 1981 and needed lots and lots of programming. Certainly before MTV, you occasionally saw videos here and there. Broadly, and admitting there were exceptions, the American acts used 16mm film and many of the British ones used tape. Stacked back-to-back on MTV, no matter how popular Duran Duran was to become among its growing audience, their video for “Planet Earth” looks like the cheapest thing in the universe when you play it immediately after even a zero-effort performance clip of the J. Geils Band, which is why EMI shelled out for film for Duran Duran’s next clip, “Careless Memories.”

So during 1982, videotape started vanishing from the pop music world. Much as documentaries might try to convince you that the “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Save a Prayer” clips ushered in a life of lavish overspending, these were exceptions to the rule, and the era of “big budget” productions, usually for Madonna and Michael Jackson, was a few years in the future.

Film wasn’t egregiously more expensive than tape, even with extras, cars, and pretty girls, but it became necessary around 1982. So Spandau Ballet’s “To Cut a Long Story Short” was on tape and “Chant No. 1” wasn’t, the Cure’s “Charlotte Sometimes” was on tape and “The Hanging Garden” wasn’t, all of Roxy Music’s clips through “More Than This” were on tape and “Avalon” wasn’t. 1982 was the last year Kate Bush did clips on videotape. Bowie was all-tape on RCA and film on EMI. (Incidentally, and bizarrely, the 1980 clip for “Fashion” wasn’t actually videotaped in the UK; it was made in New York City.) Adam Ant’s classic clips were on tape and the later ones that nobody remembers weren’t, and Culture Club had the good sense to never use tape in the first place.

A special note here about the Human League: they had several chart hits that never had videos at all, but they were omnipresent on videotape on programs like Top of the Pops, which is where young audiences learned that the lip-synced performances would be on tape, but the video clips weren’t. When the Human League did make their first video, for “Don’t You Want Me,” they’d “graduated,” in a sense. I’m going on like this because in 1982, this really did matter for the audience that Doctor Who should have been cultivating. Tape was not the medium for music videos any longer, so, in the eyes of the newest generation of TV viewers, it shouldn’t be the format for anything else, either.

Around the same time, the British television industry started taking larger steps away from tape. Again, you might can blame America. There were “prestige” productions, most obviously of Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, but these only reinforced the view of what was achievable. By 1984, even a character as popular and accessible as Sherlock Holmes would be made on film rather than tape. Granada’s very successful series, which starred Jeremy Brett as the definitive Holmes, was made with co-production money from WGBH in Boston, which led every television company in Great Britain to start knocking on WGBH’s door looking for capital. Almost all of the many resulting co-productions were made on 16mm film. It was no longer just the ITC factory looking at American sales; it was everybody. (And can you imagine a videotaped Inspector Morse?)

While there were still many British programs made on tape, even into the mid-nineties, these seemed ever-increasingly cheap and nasty in the face of what the rest of television looked like. There’s a reason why seventies children’s serials like Sky and Children of the Stones are fondly remembered in hushed tones, but people giggle about 1996’s Neverwhere looking “cheap.” Yet Neverwhere honestly looks exactly like its forerunners. Another favorite example: the characters in the hilarious and very meta “Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” a Comic Strip Presents episode shown in 1993, dismissively sneer at the police soap opera The Bill because it’s on tape.

Madly, because of the way that its budget changed, Doctor Who doubled down on video in 1986, and stopped using film entirely, even for the exterior scenes. I wonder whether things might have been different had the 1986 season been six or seven individual hour-long episodes, made on film. That fall, Who was getting absolutely killed in the UK ratings by, of all things, The A-Team. The ten year-olds of 1986 knew cheap when they saw it.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part four)

The dude on the right is Mawdryn, played by David Collings, a character actor that everybody loves and who we saw a few months ago in “The Robots of Death”. He and his seven fellow mutants are not wearing the most fashionable in outer space wear. Marie called their clothes “terrible bridesmaid dresses.” Even when you’re missing a chunk of your scalp, it’s hard to look menacing dressed like that.

But Mawdryn isn’t a traditional villain. He and his gang stole some Time Lord tech several centuries ago and have been trapped in perpetual, mutating rejuvenation ever since. All they want now is to die, and by chance, the Doctor has shown up. Apparently he can exchange the potential energy from each of his remaining eight regenerations to kill all eight of the gang, but he’ll never be able to regenerate again himself. As motivations go, I think that’s incredibly original. It’s also a little convenient, what with the numbers working together like they do, but that’s fiction for you.

I’m glad to say our son came around in the end. As I remembered, there’s a good bit of padding in part four, reminding everybody of the plot, emphasizing all the relevant points again and again, but there are enough moral dilemmas and runarounds to keep things moving, and our son was very happy with the adventure. It even ends with an explosion! It may not be a great story, but it made a splendid recovery from that lousy opening installment.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (parts two and three)

Our son is putting on his usual airs of the story being “too creepy,” but he’s really synced in with the adventure. There’s a bit in part three where Tegan, keeping watch in the corridor, spots the seven mutants gliding her way and she jumps back to warn everyone. Our kid jumped right in time with her, leaving his shoes behind.

The problem with “Mawdryn Undead” is that it could have been the best two-part story the show ever made in its original run, and the best by a mile. It might have made an excellent three-parter. Unfortunately, it’s lumbered with that godawful opener, and I’m afraid part four will kind of run in place a bit to fill its running time. But these middle episodes are just cracking with imagination and originality. Once the story finally decides to place the Brigadier in the center of things – two Brigadiers, in 1977 and in 1983! – Nicholas Courtney gets to really shine. And who can’t sympathize with our old friend when he grumbles about “yomping up that wretched hill” three times in one afternoon?

I really think that all of Steven Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stories from his run have their genesis here. When Moffat was a fanboy, he wore out his off-air videotape of this adventure from rewatching it over and over.

Of course, another thing our son’s pretending to be aggravated with is the return of Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian, after his brief but memorable appearance in part six of “The Armageddon Factor” a little over three years previously. About the only thing I don’t like about these episodes is the casual way the Doctor has decided to just take Turlough’s knowledge of alien science at face value without challenging him on it. Clearly he knows something is up with this kid – and since, despite casting an obvious twentysomething in the role, Turlough can’t be much older than seventeen to still be at this posh private school – even though he doesn’t know that the Black Guardian is the one manipulating him.

Dyall is amazing, a real force of nature. After he gets done yelling at Turlough in the school clinic, I want to go give the poor fellow a hug and order him some milk and cookies to calm his nerves. And I don’t even like Turlough.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part one)

“Mawdryn Undead” is a four-part serial written with passion and enthusiasm by Peter Grimwade, directed with either disinterest or contempt for the material by Peter Moffatt, and featuring music by Paddy Kingsland that sounds like a joke B-side from one of Erasure’s earliest singles.

As I’ve mentioned before, many Doctor Who adventures from the serial days will start strong before petering out. “Mawdryn Undead” is possibly unique in that it becomes a good, interesting story with a great idea at its core, but it begins with what is very nearly the worst first episode in the whole of the program. The first episode of “The Twin Dilemma” is even worse, but that serial never gets any better as it goes along, so the mind-crushing awfulness of the first part of “Mawdryn” is an amazing standout.

And, in fairness, I should concede that Kingsland’s music also gets a little better as the story continues, but the dumb, jaunty “joyride” music that accompanies the young men pretending to be teenagers in their straw boater hats as they steal the car will be stuck in my head on my dying day. I’ll talk more about Turlough, one of the biggest missed opportunities in the whole series, another time. Suffice it to say for now that in 1982-83, Doctor Who was in such a dumb headspace that they honestly thought that making the school bully into a companion was a good idea.

Even the effects defy suspending disbelief. Most of the time, when Doctor Who gives us a show-stopping terrible special effect, it has the decency to wait until the end of the serial, and it almost always looks like the work of very talented people who did their very best with the time and money available and just couldn’t quite bring it off. Four minutes into “Mawdryn” and Turlough is supposed to be having an out-of-body experience on the astral plane, and all that the visual effects team bothered to do was switch on the background animation from a game show hosted by Wink Martindale.

But here’s what really gets my goat. Here’s your big guest star this week: some guy.

Come off it. There’s never been a worse directorial decision than Peter Moffatt’s stultifying choice in reintroducing Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart*. Turlough and “Hippo” do not name the owner of the car they steal. There could have been a line like “This is that retired brigadier’s car,” for starters. No, an actor with his back to the camera says “How are things on your end, Brigadier?” and we’re supposed to recognize the man who responds to that line as the same man who we know by his military uniform and mustache, and who had not appeared in the program in eight years.

This is the lazy work of a show that is not trying. Everybody involved has figured they can pull it off because they wager that the only people watching will have read about it in magazines and newspapers ahead of time. They’re letting the PR department announce the character so they don’t have to bother. I made a different bet: that Marie and our son wouldn’t have a clue who this guy was, and I was right. Marie noted that he was called “brigadier,” but didn’t realize it was Lethbridge-Stewart, because after twenty-five minutes, the script still hasn’t identified him as anybody we’ve ever met before.

At least it gets better. The next episode is almost terrific.

*Although another candidate for this honor would be Peter Moffatt again, two years after this story, reintroducing the Sontarans by way of an establishing shot from about a hundred yards away.

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