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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts three and four)

You may not believe this, but for me, the most memorable moments in “Planet of Fire” aren’t actually Nicola Bryant’s scenes in her bikini, delightful though those all-too-short scenes are. It’s not even the surprising – and surprisingly sad – farewell to Kamelion, as the robot begs for death and the Doctor obliges him. It’s not even anything to do with the terrific Peter Wyngarde, because he is so amazingly wasted in a role that just about anybody his age could have played.

No, the best part of “Planet of Fire” is the cliffhanger to part three and the great little bitchfest between the Master and Peri. After a third episode that’s even more boring than I remembered, it ends with the terrific surprise that the Master has accidentally shrunk himself and has been controlling Kamelion from a little control room about the size of a shoeshine boy’s box. This shocked our son so much that he fumbled his exclamation, shouting “What the world – wide – world?!” as the credits rolled. In part four, Peri gets a great moment when the Master, having scurried to his ship’s console and hidden inside, continues threatening her and she’s not having it. “You come out here and say that,” she shouts, and we all laughed. The scene honestly isn’t very well staged, but Anthony Ainley and Nicola Bryant sure did play it well.

But there’s another interesting thing about “Planet of Fire,” and that’s the departure of Turlough. All along, he’s felt like the producer and writers had no idea what they wanted to do with this character, and some of what’s revealed here seems very, very contradictory to what they were saying about him just months previously. Turlough was apparently a junior military officer on the losing side of a civil war on the planet Trion. So he’s presumably older than I thought, which makes his apparent “incarceration” in a boarding school even more ridiculous.

This is what they do with military prisoners on Trion: sentence them to go to school on less developed planets, where they will steal cars and pester the unpopular kids, under the watchful eye of a “strange solicitor” in London? Honestly, even knowing already about Turlough’s nonsensical past, it makes even less sense watched cohesively. It’s an early example of what would later exasperate me about The X Files or Lost. If you come up with the story in the first place, instead of inventing something later on to link all the jigsaw pieces together, it stands a much better chance of making sense!

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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts one and two)

Peter Grimwade’s “Planet of Fire” is the third Doctor Who story in a row to elicit just a shrug, but man alive, this one should have been better. There’s location filming in Lanzarote helmed by Fiona Cumming, a great guest star, errrm, the Master and Kamelion but never mind, and the debut of a new companion. It’s Peri, who becomes the first American to travel in the TARDIS.

I won’t hear a bad word about the actress who plays Peri. Her name is Nicola Bryant, and not only is she a perfectly good actress – and Peri gets a few really great scenes in later stories – she’s a fabulous ambassador for Doctor Who. Nobody’s paying her to be a positive force in fandom. This is a show she left thirty-plus years ago, and she’s still singing its praises and welcoming new actors to the family. (Plus, if you like dogs, she’s a great advocate for animal welfare and is always sharing pictures of her family pets on Twitter!)

But because I contradict myself and contain multitudes, I can call myself a fan of Nicola Bryant and also think that casting a British actress while claiming the new character was meant to appeal to the show’s new American audience was an unusual decision. (See the comments for more on that topic.) Peri’s always divided opinions. I bet that for every person I’ve ever met who liked Peri, I’ve met five who just spit nails at the mention of her name. That said, I have always wondered how the character would have gone over had the BBC found a way to get a known American actress, such as, say, Lisa Whelchel, who was Blair on The Facts of Life, to play Peri?

I was keen to get more input from my son into this critical situation, but he had a very long day, was very over-tired, and his initially pleasant surprise that Kamelion was actually present in this story eventually turned sour when the Master turned up as well. He didn’t have an opinion about Peri and I don’t think he paid very much attention to part two of this story at all.

Joining the regular cast in Lanzarote, there are a few fellows in old-fashioned robes, chief among them the great Peter Wyngarde. Unfortunately, Wyngarde is playing another dreary religious lunatic. You don’t suppose all these prophecies about a strange being called Logar are going to have a scientific explanation in the final episode, do you? Stopping Nicola Bryant from being the only woman with a speaking part, Barbara Shelley is here as well, but she doesn’t have very much to do. She’s so irrelevant to the plot that she just gets to appear in the studio material back in London, having missed out on the trip to Lanzarote.

Well, hopefully our son will wake up for part three, and it won’t be as much of a snooze fest as I remember. Fingers crossed!

Photo credit (Lisa Whelchel): https://www.pinterest.com/mercyjacobs/

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Doctor Who: The Five Doctors

When I was a kid and comics cost 35 or 40 cents, Superman’s father Jor-El was so recognizable that he was regularly merchandised. There were dolls and action figures of the guy. DC’s writers and editors were almost pathologically obsessed with telling stories of Superman’s home planet. There was a World of Krypton miniseries, and even the Legion of Super-Heroes time-traveled back to meet him. It was all very, very boring and unnecessary to me.

With that in mind, in Terrance Dicks’ anniversary adventure “The Five Doctors,” we finally say goodbye to the Doctor’s home planet for a good while. It is the most boring and unnecessary place for our hero to ever visit, and this stale feeling is driven home by the actors who play Time Lords. This is the fourth story in seven years set on Gallifrey and exactly one actor – Paul Jerricho, as Commissioner “Castellan” Gordon – appears in two of them. Even the most important supporting character, President Borusa, is played by four different actors. How are we supposed to feel any connection to any of these people?

Fans just love kvetching and kibitzing about “The Five Doctors” and all its missed opportunities, but I think the biggest one comes in not addressing these unfamiliar faces. When the Master is shown into the president’s office, he addresses the three people inside. He says “President Borusa, Lord Castellan,” and then Anthony Ainley should have looked at the woman and said “I have no idea who you are.”

But everyone loves “The Five Doctors” anyway, because it’s a lighthearted anniversary celebration and it’s fun to watch Pertwee, Troughton, and Courtney squabbling again. Yes, Peter Moffatt’s direction is incredibly pedestrian and slapdash (count how many times actors don’t respond to objects that are clearly in their sight line), yes, they could have at least given us one clear and well-lit shot of the Yeti, and yes, surely while stuck in the TARDIS, the strange alien teenager and the Doctor’s granddaughter could have found something more interesting to talk about than “what do you think the Cybermen are doing.”

Yes, the Doctor’s granddaughter is in this, but Carole Ann Ford is only allowed to play Random First Doctor Companion. She calls her Doctor “Grandfather” twice and that’s it. This is apparently because the producer at the time insisted on presenting the Doctor as an asexual figure to avoid British tabloid journalists making rude headlines about Peter Davison and his attractive female co-stars in short skirts. That’s another huge missed opportunity and a scene we should have had: the fifth Doctor introducing his granddaughter to Tegan and Turlough.

Our son mostly loved it, as you’d expect. He did that standard grumble about the Master and the Cybermen and a Dalek showing up, but then he went eyes-wide and jumped with a huge smile when he saw the Yeti. He loved the famous “Cyber-massacre” scene, where about nine of them get impaled and decapitated before firing a single shot, but his favorite part of the whole story was when the third Doctor and Sarah “zip-line” down to the top of the tower.

I really enjoyed teasing our son with the strange possible-continuity-error brainteaser about Jamie and Zoe. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury show up for a cameo as “phantoms” warning the second Doctor from going any deeper into the tower. The Doctor realizes that they’re fake when he remembers that Jamie and Zoe’s minds were erased of the period they spent with him. (The real error is that Troughton asks “So how do you know who we are.” They should both remember the Doctor, but Jamie shouldn’t know Zoe. Glossing over that, the important part is that neither should know the Brigadier. The line should have been Troughton pointing at Courtney while saying “So how do you know who he is.”)

It took our son a minute to wrap his brain around the problem. Where in his lifetime does the second Doctor come from if he knows about Jamie and Zoe’s memory wipe, when (we’ve been led to believe) that the very next thing that happened after the mind wipe was the Doctor regenerated and was shipped to Earth? I told him that we’d get a little more information about that in a couple of months, and that we’d see Patrick Troughton again in a different role in just a few days…

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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: Time-Flight (parts three and four)

I’m reasonably sure our son’s the only person to ever be thrilled by “Time-Flight.” He thought this one was fantastic, and really loved the Concorde’s unlikely takeoff from a barren prehistoric plain. I was reminded that he was also thrilled by that episode of MacGyver where our hero gets a plane airborne under very implausible conditions.

I’m not going to kick “Time-Flight” any more than I did last time. Watching it wasn’t fun, and reliving it isn’t either. Our kid liked it a lot, and that’s what matters. He enjoyed wrapping his brain around the idea that the missing Concorde wasn’t actually salvageable (like one of the characters joked) after 140 million years. He got to sneer the Master a little and be surprised by the out-of-the-blue ending. It’s a win in his book.

I really think this ending was a huge missed opportunity. The producer intended the scene of Tegan realizing the Doctor has dropped her back in London without a goodbye as a cliffhanger, but it sure doesn’t come across that way. There’s barely any buildup, and no sense that this was a big moment. It doesn’t feel like the end of the season. It doesn’t even feel like the end of the story!

But what if they had swapped “Time-Flight” with “Earthshock” and dropped Tegan off one story early? It’s not like she and Nyssa are really both required for the story of “Earthshock” anyway. You get “Time-Flight” with Adric and “Earthshock” without Tegan, and then you get Adric’s death and the silent credits as your season finale. Wouldn’t that have been interesting?

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Doctor Who: Time-Flight (parts one and two)

The bubble had to burst eventually. It’s just a shame that two very, very solid and entertaining seasons of Doctor Who had to crashland with one of the all-time misfires. “Time-Flight,” written by Peter Grimwade, had been in development for so long and rewritten so many times that the author had asked “Look, do you mind if I direct a few stories while you’re waiting?”

There’s a school of thought that says that Grimwade’s original idea about two “tribes” of mental aliens who exist only as energy – a concept we won’t even encounter until part three of the story – might have been pretty interesting before the producer started shoehorning two missing airplanes and the return of the Master into the narrative. Part one at least begins promisingly, with the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa discussing Adric’s death, and then there’s some nice location filming at Heathrow Airport while the Doctor just tries to read the sports page, a moment that I’m pretty sure is unique in the program.

After a reasonably promising beginning, it all falls apart. “Meglos” in the previous season certainly wasn’t very good, but at least it felt coherent. This is just scene after scene of the Doctor reciting technobabble in a succession of stunningly fake and very small environments. We’re back to character actors again this time: Nigel Stock, who had been so very entertaining in the late sixties as Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes, is so very tedious as a professor who thinks they’ve been hijacked to the Soviet Union instead of the Jurassic period. Michael Cashman, who had been one of The Sandbaggers and is today The Rt Hon. The Lord Cashman CBE – now there’s an interesting career arc – is a British Airways co-pilot.

And there’s the Master. When he’s revealed at the cliffhanger of part two, our son’s response was as follows: “Oh, come on! Come on! Not the Master! He’s so annoying!” Perhaps because the villain of the piece had possibly originally been a villain in the style of the Arabian Knights, everybody decided to just let the Master disguise himself as an overweight grey-skinned magician with packs of green slime under his mask. He must have figured the Doctor would show up… although I believe there’s genuinely no part of his plan that requires him pretending to be anybody else in the first place. Let’s see what happens tomorrow night in the second half and see whether I’m wrong!

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts three and four)

So here we see Anthony Ainley made up as “the Portreeve,” an old, learned man in the strange city of Castrovalva. The disguise worked. I paused in the end credits for part three, where Ainley is credited as “Neil Toynay,” and asked Marie whether she recognized the actor, and she didn’t. “So who is he?” our son asked. “Mom and I saw him the other night in Out of the Unknown,” I said, attempting one more clue. Unknown was a BBC anthology series that started as adaptations of proper, pipe-smoking sci-fi that evolved into original works of psychological horror and the supernatural by the end. What survived the BBC’s wiping is incredibly uneven and occasionally terrible, but almost always interesting to watch. My favorite is the 1966 adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” which is just eye-poppingly amazing. Ainley was the star of a 1971 story called “Welcome Home” which she and I watched Wednesday night. It is almost oppressively creepy, and he’s excellent in it.

So bravo to Ainley, the makeup team, and director Fiona Cumming for pulling it off. When he reveals himself to be the Master in part four, only one of the three people in this audience saw it coming. I honestly don’t remember whether I saw through the disguise when I first saw this in late 1984. I probably didn’t.

Castrovalva is a city on the top of a steep, rocky hill on a quiet and calm wooded planet that made us all want to hike and climb the rocks there. The city is populated by incredibly likable and kind people, one of them played by the fine character actor Michael Sheard, and the Doctor evidently hasn’t paid enough attention to 20th Century popular culture, because he doesn’t spot that the city is built like an MC Escher print, with all the staircases leading to the same place and sometimes upside down.

I’ve noted this little hole in the Doctor’s knowledge before, back when we learned that the Master is a King Crimson fan. I’ll tell you what was going on during the Third Doctor’s exile. He was taking Jo to the National Gallery, name-dropping all the artists he’s known, and telling ribald stories about Titian. Meanwhile, the Master was hanging out in record stores and head shops, seeing what pipe-smoking sci-fi readers were framing on their living room walls, and sneering about snobs who use words like “ribald.”

Our son was very pleased with this story, which was nice, because he’s been more patient than engaged with the last few things we’ve watched together. “I really liked this one,” he told us, singling out the part where one of the Castrovalvan people saves the day by swinging from a chandelier into the Master’s infernal machine. The Master shouts “My web!” when it happens, which is slightly comical. Then he tries to escape in his TARDIS, finds that he can’t use it to get out of the collapsing, recursive geography of Castrovalva, steps outside and bellows “My web!” again, which is more than just “slightly” comical.

So that’s it for Peter Davison’s first adventure. He makes a great team with Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, and Janet Fielding. The story is original, and certainly unlike anything we’ve seen on the show before. The dialogue’s sometimes clumsy, and Tegan must have grown up in a household full of pipe-smoking sci-fi readers, because she has accepted all of this with no confusion or complaint, but this is another very good example of what I was talking about with “The Leisure Hive” when I said that the program is trying to look and sound interesting and different. You really get the sense that everybody involved wants to make this show work.

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts one and two)

Back to January 1982 and Peter Davison’s first story in Doctor Who. Davison gets to spend the first half hour stumbling around the corridors of the TARDIS, and the second half hour asleep and being carried around in a coffin. Nobody hates “Castrovalva,” but that’s because episodes three and four are incredibly clever and fun. If the entire thing was like the first two parts, things would have been different.

Season nineteen was recorded way out of order, first so that Davison would have a chance to get a handle on his character before going back and acting all erratic and weird in this one, and second so that the people behind the scenes could nail down exactly what this story was going to be. The story that was planned for Davison’s debut wasn’t working, so the producer commissioned Christopher H. Bidmead, who had been his script editor the previous year, to come up with this. As with Bidmead’s previous story, “Logopolis”, there’s too much technobabble in the script, and poor Sarah Sutton is forced to try and make something called “telebiogenesis” sound important. The quirky concept this time around is recursion, which, again, gets fun in the second half of the story.

Still, even though these first two parts are incredibly slow, they’re just so likable. It’s actually kind of refreshing to spend a full half hour episode letting the Doctor be weird and absent-minded and spend time on the strangeness of his regeneration crisis. Later on, the indulgence of “the Doctor gets to be WACKY when he regenerates” would grate, but I like it here. And the simple, slow pace was perfect for our son, who really enjoyed this. The pacing is perfect for younger viewers, with one problem at a time and a detailed, engaging solution to each new issue. That said, he did complain that the obstacles were ensuring that absolutely nobody was getting what they wanted. He even felt sorry for the Master after his traps were foiled, because surely if the heroes were miserable, then at least the villain could have a good day!

One point of bother, pointing the way toward future irritations, though: the Doctor has three companions all of a sudden, and they all apparently read a book about the show or something, because they all know what regeneration is. It’s an ugly case of the people making the program choosing to believe that everybody watching the program is well-versed in the lore and reads the preview articles in the TV section. And while it’s incredibly laudable that Tegan has decided to stay and help this strange man through his regeneration crisis instead of waving everybody off back into outer space, the script treats her as though she’d somehow taken the Doctor Who Companion Orientation and has signed on for a season or more. Later stories would remember that Tegan’s goal was to get back to Earth in the spring of 1981 and get to her stewardess job at Heathrow Airport. It’s not mentioned even once here!

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