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Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts five and six)

People have been making new suggestions for Doctor Who spinoffs since the mid-sixties, but I think that our son’s onto a unique one. He believes that there should be a show that sounds just perfect, and since he is still a few years from meeting Strax, I’m amazed by his prescience. He calls his show Stupid Sontaran and it’s about a Sontaran who acts just like all the others and is obsessed with war, but he either gives or receives really dumb orders, like “I order you to take a nap for the glorious Sontaran empire!” So, Chris Chibnall, if you like it, and I’m sure that you do, drop me a line, and we’ll get our boy some representation to make it all nice and legal.

Everyone remembers the Sontarans’ surprise appearance for this story’s last two episodes, and everybody remembers that the very noisy original K9 stays behind on Gallifrey, and so does Leela, in what might be the all-time worst companion departure in the entire series. It would have been better if she had died heroically saving the Doctor…. or if she stayed behind to join the fur-clad Gallifreyan dropouts who live outside the city… or if she stayed behind with Rodan, with whom she’s actually spent some screen time in this adventure, though that might have been pretty unlikely for the BBC in 1978. No, she has fallen in love, completely offscreen, with that Chief O’Hara dude. Both actress Louise Jameson and her character deserved a lot better than this.

Yeah, I know, these observations are all that anybody ever says about the end of this story, but that’s all I’ve got. Well, I guess that our son was impressed by just how many corridors and rooms there are inside the TARDIS, much more than he believed was in there. And he did get a kick out of the Doctor’s greenhouse having a big Sontaran-eating flytrap, but otherwise this, like several serials this season, was an adventure that limped to its finale. The next season will be better.

We’ll take a break from Doctor Who to rotate something else in, but stick around! We will begin season sixteen in about three weeks!

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Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts three and four)

So Gallifrey has been invaded by these aliens called Vardans, and the Doctor’s been playing along because they’re telepathic and can detect treachery. They spend part three and the first half of part four not fully materialized, in sort of a shimmering thought-form. This is an incredibly interesting idea that looks incredibly silly, because the BBC just couldn’t make this concept work very well. When these powerful enemies finally do show themselves, it’s just three actors in basic sci-fi military uniforms. Amazingly, the show even underlines the flat revelation by having Tom Baker and Milton Johns complain about how disappointing it is. A comedy womp-womp sound wouldn’t have done worse.

Some of the actors in this story are very good, especially Baker, Johns, and John Arnatt. Unfortunately, the Doctor spends most of part four in the company of the Chief O’Hara character that I mentioned last time, a guy called Andred who’s there for the Doctor to explain all the plot to. I’m sure the actor’s a very nice fellow, but this character is incredibly annoying, even more so because I know how this story is going to end next time, and forty years hasn’t made it any less stupid.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts one and two)

Regular readers might have figured out that production of Doctor Who‘s fifteenth season was troubled and erratic. It really was, and that’s before we came to the collapse of the six-part serial that was planned to end the season. It was scripted by a veteran TV writer called David Weir and it wasn’t working, so “The Invasion of Time” was an eleventh-hour replacement co-written by the show’s producer and script editor, Graham Williams and Anthony Read, and broadcast under a pseudonym.

It’s an interesting story, but it’s not a great one. We’re back on Gallifrey, where everything is starting to look like a 1970s beauty salon and where many, many details are different since we were last here fifteen months or so previously. None of the actors from “The Deadly Assassin” returned for this, just names and ranks and costumes. John Arnatt takes over the role of the Doctor’s former teacher, Borusa, in this adventure, and the wonderful Milton Johns plays Kelner, the new Castellan. He’s the police commissioner, basically, and the head of the citadel guards is a barely competent red-clad fellow who wishes he could be Chief O’Hara when he grows up.

The real fun in parts one and two is that the kids in the audience are not in on the secret of what’s going on. It’s all a big mystery, although one that won’t tax adult viewers. The Doctor has signed a contract with some alien invaders, and K9’s in favor of this plan, but Leela can’t be allowed to stay in the Time Lord city. Revisiting the plot of “The Deadly Assassin,” the Doctor has returned home to assume his role as president, so that he can access the Matrix, but Leela has to be expelled, K9 has to destroy the planet’s force field, and the Doctor needs a private room with lead-lined walls, ceilings, and floors… almost as though he needs to keep a big secret from somebody. Our son enjoyed this, especially seeing K9 cause lots of explosions in the force field generator basement, but he is completely stumped as to what our hero is planning. Good!

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Doctor Who: Underworld (parts three and four)

Our son enjoyed this more and more with each episode. After all, it ends with an entire planet blowing up. The grownups did not. We’re just glad that he’s happy.

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Doctor Who: Underworld (parts one and two)

In 1978, Time-Life Television offered a package of Tom Baker’s first four Doctor Who seasons – 98 episodes – to American TV stations. Because they thought the show was a little too esoteric or something, they hired an actor named Howard da Silva to provide narrations, voiceovers and recaps, using a very distinctive, deliberate enunciation. Some fans collect these otherwise lost versions, I guess in the same way that some people want to collect the American prints of EastEnders with the Tracy Ullman introductions.

From time to time, when the organization that holds the rights to a show wants to assemble a new package, some rogue prints turn up. Some of the apparent master tapes of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters have introductions from a later syndication package, and, as we’ll discuss in this space soon, A&E had a big ole mess when they started showing the Tara King episodes of The Avengers in the early 1990s. In 1982, Lionheart Television put together a new package of the Tom Baker stories, offering 41 edited TV movies or the half-hour episodes. Somehow, they included the Howard da Silva print of part two of “Underworld” in the compilation movie.

I remember that when WGTV showed this in 1984, I had actually just stepped out of the room for a second and heard this weird voice, right when the Minyans’ spaceship crashes through the planet’s liquid surface. Something like “The Doctor and his friends pah-lunge intoooo the Unnnnderworrrrld…” It took me years to figure out what that dopey narration was doing on the show.

Anyway, once the Doctor and his friends plunge into the Underworld, the same thing happens that we saw in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s previous Who script, “The Invisible Enemy.” The first episode of this story is tremendously entertaining. I liked it a lot. Good performances, good sets, a good sense of mystery. Then they step out of the spaceship in episode two and everything falls apart.

Infamously, the actors don’t step out into tunnels and caverns built in the studio. They step out into a blue screen environment of photographs of tunnels and caverns. Speaking of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, this is honestly the closest that Doctor Who ever came to looking like a late period Sid and Marty Krofft program, when they didn’t have any money either. Our son wasn’t impressed, and nobody else is, for that matter. Even with K9, this one’s pretty dull.

Old business: For those of you who remember my post about “The Brain of Morbius” and its suggestion that there were other Doctors before William Hartnell, I had said that nothing is shown onscreen to contradict it until “Mawdryn Undead” in 1983. However, an online acquaintance who goes by the handle “Forever Love” – a fantastic LP, by the way – drew my attention to an exchange in this story, where the Doctor says that he’s only regenerated “two or three times,” and not “ten or eleven.” Sounds like more evidence that my son was right and those other eight dudes we saw were the early incarnations of Morbius!

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts three and four)

The most important thing to note this morning is that our son really, really enjoyed this adventure. It’s easily one of his favorites from this Doctor. He didn’t get frightened or scared, but he got into things hugely. When the workers begin their uprising, he was cheering them on. He also had a blast with the cliffhanger to part three. It’s a very well done moment, with the pressure rising and only seconds to go before Leela is steamed to death in a public execution, and one sadly undermined by the total lack of urgency in part four as the Doctor rescues her, but wow, his eyes were as wide as they get and his feet kicking furiously as the credits rolled.

Our son says he had two favorite moments: he loved that buggy in part three, and he loved the Doctor’s confrontation with Henry Woolf’s vulgar Collector. This great scene ends with the Collector reverting to his true alien form and shrinking down into his survival chair, and he was imitating the villain with shouts of “Liquidate, liquidate!”

I’ve always thought this was a pretty good story, but I enjoyed it even more this time around. Woolf and Richard Leech are a great double-act, and they get all the best dialogue. I loved it when the Collector gets a scent of the Doctor’s moral outrage and sneers about it being the “vicious doctrine of egalitarianism.” I was also intrigued by the Collector researching the Time Lords and the Doctor, finding them a commercially non-viable target, and the Doctor himself a very well-documented thorn in the side of countless oppressors and tyrants over the centuries. If you remember that scene in 2008’s “Forest of the Dead” where the Doctor tells the Vashta Nerada “Look me up,” I think its spiritual ancestor is this little bit.

I think “The Sun Makers” is sometimes overlooked because it doesn’t have a monster, and because the black limbo sets are unconvincing, and because all the location filming in the basement of some building succeeds in making this look nothing like Pluto in the year six million and exactly like the basement of some building. But the script and the acting are so fantastic! I enjoyed seeing this one again almost as much as our kid enjoyed seeing it for the first time.

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts one and two)

I was all set to talk and talk about the choices that director Pennant Roberts made in using 16mm film versus videotape in this story, and then our son derailed my thoughts by “collapsing” at the sight of the buggy that the armed guards on Pluto use in their long, weird corridors when it shows up at the cliffhanger to episode two. “It has seven turbo machine gun cannons,” he told us! All I saw was a dressed-up golf cart. There’s more proof we should all be watching television in the company of children. Sometimes they’ll appreciate the things that you overlook, and sometimes they’ll keep their boring old dad from writing an even more boring blog post than usual.

What I was going to say was that Robert Holmes’ story “The Sun Makers” marks the debut of Anthony Read to the show as its script editor, a post he’ll hold for the rest of this season and all of the next. It features some very entertaining guest performances by Richard Leech and Henry Woolf as the money-obsessed villains who drug Pluto’s population and burden them with inhumane tax rates. Michael Keating, who would join the cast of Blake’s 7 right after making this story, also has a small role as one of Pluto’s rebels, but the real fun is watching everybody bowing and scraping to Leech, and watching Leech bowing and scraping to Woolf.

Our son was, of course, mostly taken by K9 and the buggy, but he paid good attention tonight and enjoyed the adventure, even if he’s vocally outraged by how evil the company that runs Pluto is. We had a pre-show chat about some things he knows about that might help a seven year-old understand this story. Earlier this year, we visited The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge and saw some examples of company scrip, which Appalachian mining corporations would issue to exploit their workers. We also talked about the good that comes from paying taxes, but how it would be wrong for the government and the only job on the planet to be one and the same, and for that job to collect taxes from the wages that they pay you. There’s even a tax on medicine, which is pretty cheeky considering the population is all on the verge of nervous exhaustion from the hours they have to work and the fear drugs pumped into the air conditioning.

In other words, this is the sort of society that we’re going to greatly enjoy the Doctor knocking over when we sit down for the next half!

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Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (parts three and four)

You know, I just didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I was going to. I do enjoy the way that I’ve found lots more to like about some Who adventures, especially “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster,” than I thought that I would, so I guess the flip side is that naturally there would be one or two that drop down a couple of pegs from my remembrance to reality.

“Image of the Fendahl” is a really flawed story, particularly when everything starts to revolve around the Satanic coven that one of the four scientists has been leading in his spare time. It’s something that should have been developed and explored, but because there was such a huge money crunch during this period of the program, it’s even less convincing than the coven in the broadly similar Jon Pertwee-era adventure “The Daemons.” I particularly “like” the way that the only member of Stahl’s coven with a speaking part is also the only character in the village that we meet other than the two characters who help our heroes. Devil’s End felt like a real place because we saw it and all the dozens of people who live there. This place just exists in a TV studio.

So it fails at a lot of important things, but I still appreciate it because the tone is just right. This is prime “scaring children” Who, from an era where the horror is largely going to be swept aside for light sci-fi action like we saw in the previous adventure. In this, it succeeds, because our son tells us that this was really scary and “totally creepy.” This and “Fang Rock” both feel like holdovers from the three seasons of the show that Philip Hinchcliffe produced. The way forward is going to be much breezier.

I think that Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are both really good in this adventure, even if the guest cast all seem under-rehearsed. Dennis Lill and Wanda Ventham would be back in stories in the 1980s and I think they did better and more convincing jobs as their characters in those, and there’s a guy named Edward Arthur who seems to be doing a very good impersonation of Ian Ogilvy rather than making me believe that he’s a scientist who’s in over his head. So there’s a lot that boring old people like me can grumble about, but any story that gives seven year-olds the creeps can’t be called a complete failure, and while our son didn’t have a lot to say about this one, he seemed to enjoy it.

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