I’ve got to hand it to this show. Whatever its limitations, it really succeeded in capturing our son’s imagination. Before we got started with the final part of the first serial, he had lots of questions about the time bomb that was used in part six. He remembered it much more clearly than I did; my focus had been on how the production team had redressed their cave set, and on the guest star John Abineri, growling with that sad-eyed expression of his. But our son had spent the last several days fascinated by how a character had used a small candle on the minute hand of a clock to start a fuse. I was trying to hurriedly finish my breakfast to start the story and could hardly eat for all the questions about clocks and gunpowder and when I thought the first time bomb was made.
The final part of the story was written by Anthony Read, and as the title suggests, it’s set in the original labyrinth of Knossos. A few years earlier, Read had written a pair of Doctor Who serials, “Underworld” and “The Horns of Nimon,” that also got to reflect his interest in classical myths. This minotaur was an amusing surprise. Instead of the usual half-man, half-bull, it’s an altar of a huge, blue, bull’s head that houses the Nidus between its eyes and is protected by a force field. I don’t think that the Greek myths will capture his imagination in the same way as that clock bomb – he’s more of a STEM kid than a humanities kid – but overall this story kept him thinking and guessing and ready for the next serial, later this summer.
I’ve often said that lots of children’s entertainment really requires the eyes of a child to appreciate. Show a grownup Far Out Space Nuts for the first time without a kid adding to the laugh track and they may question your sanity. I’m incredibly glad I waited for Into the Labyrinth and didn’t swap for this years ago. This needs a child’s eye or nostalgia to understand. Mind you, it’s pretty tedious and repetitive even with the kid, but he is having a blast, and he doesn’t mind the really woeful visual effects, in much the same way I dismiss the woeful visuals of Space Nuts and the like.
There was one part in episode four where the children, summoned to the astral plane for another one of Rothgo and Belor’s magic duels in front of a blue screen, where he got a genuine laugh, but he confused me for a second. In her present-day incarnation, Pamela Salem has got a real 1980 Kate Bush look going on. I’ll have to get a picture of her next time. Anyway, I talked about the video/film divide of the 1980s a few months ago, and how music videos were one place you could see the change, as the videotape that was expected of most British media in the 1970s started losing favor. And so suddenly you’ve got Pamela Salem dressed all in black and using all the hairspray, waving her hands and looking melodramatic on a blue screen set, with flat photos of caves keyed into the picture behind her, and suddenly the children in their monk robes dance around her, and it looks exactly like one of Kate Bush’s dire videos from Lionheart or The Dreaming, before EMI started spending money on her promotional clips and hiring Donald Sutherland.
So I snorted because it looked ridiculous, but the kid burst a lung laughing because it was genuinely hilarious to him. Now, fair’s fair, he did snort in part three when Belor conjures a magical beast for about two seconds and it’s a small wood carving of a Chinese dragon like you’d find in a tatty gift shop, but otherwise, he’s completely caught up in this and enjoying it enormously. It’s TV made for eight year-olds and it succeeds amazingly well.
Anyway, episode three was written by Anthony Read and it’s a Robin Hood story that actually uses two other sets. Episode four, sadly, was back to the cave sets because it’s an Ali Baba and the One Thief adventure. The budget required that the other thirty-nine lost hope and went home.
Our son noticed that in the first Sapphire & Steel serial, we met Lead, and in the third, we met Silver, and wondered whether there would be a new agent in this odd-numbered story. There is, kind of. Sapphire and Steel take Felix into their confidence and allow him the power of telepathic communication. He gives himself the code name Brass and thinks this is jolly good fun. Unfortunately for Brass, he remains all too human.
I think that some people consider this the weakest adventure because our heroes’ characterization is slightly off, and their powers aren’t quite “right,” somehow (evidence that writers Don Houghton and Anthony Read weren’t 100% certain of how everything should be), but I love it. It’s like fringe theater, especially when the seventy-some year-old actors return to the original track of the events in 1930 and are playing the roles as they would have as twentysomethings. I asked our son if he had figured out whodunnit, but in this case the mystery is who made some deal with Time to change the events in 1930.
I like how, despite all the weird trappings of this series, and the extremely weird characterizations as some of the players are aware that something is wrong with time and people are dying and some are not, it all comes down to very human and very real motives. Sure, it could have used another minute or so on the climax to give the actors more time to chew on their dilemma, but this was also the first Sapphire & Steel serial that our son admitted to enjoying a little bit, so I think it’s a win.
I really enjoy how this turns into a demented and malevolent game of Clue. Was it Miss Blaney in the hall with a knife? Mr. Parnell in the dining room with a revolver? Mr. McDee in the dining room with poisoned port? How about all three? They’re the victims, of course.
The unusual highlight for our son, however, was Sapphire identifying the knife as having been manufactured in Sheffield in the 1920s. He recognized the name of the city from the most recent run of Doctor Who!
The fifth Sapphire & Steel serial is definitely the odd one out. It’s got by far the largest cast, it’s not even remotely frightening, and nor does it try to be, and it’s the only one not written by the show’s creator PJ Hammond. It was co-written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read, who, unlike Hammond, both had long experience working on Doctor Who, and this is a more traditional-styled adventure, set around a dinner party that is pretending to take place fifty years earlier, in the summer of 1930.
Of course, you can’t have a country house full of guests in dinner dress in 1930 without somebody turning up dead. That just wouldn’t be cricket. But with Wimsey, Campion, Poirot, and the Beresfords unavailable, our amateur investigators are Sapphire and Steel, who have arrived in the form of the Honourable Miles Cavendish and his wife Virginia. But before somebody turns up dead, somebody else turns up alive: George McDee, a brilliant researcher who died fifty years earlier.
Surprisingly – to me, anyway – for a production from this time with this many speaking parts, the only actor that I recognized in it is Peter Laird, who had a recurring role in the excellent spy drama The Sandbaggers around this time. I also recognized the unmistakable voice of Valentine Dyall doing a little radio commentary, keeping listeners up to date with the score in England’s Test Match against Australia. Of course, since the match was played half a century ago, the score should be known to everyone who follows the sport, but as time starts getting distorted, memories and actions become a little… unpredictable.
I owe “Death to the Daleks” an apology. This one’s worse.
The kid really enjoyed it, though. He got a little frustrated during episode three, because he couldn’t understand what the Nimon was planning. I think it’s more that he thought the show had explained all the details and he missed them. Reassured that none of us knew what the silly minotaur-dude was planning, he settled back in and had a ball. He thought it was very exciting and loved the gunfights in episode four. Of course, it ends with a big explosion, and those are always satisfying for him. And there, I think, is where I will leave it. I’ll let you know in 2038 whether it’s improved any.
Hoo, boy. “The Horns of Nimon” really is a mess. The story goes that with Douglas Adams working hard on writing the final six episodes of the season himself, he turned to his predecessor as script editor, Anthony Read, to give him four workable episodes which wouldn’t require very much of his attention. Apparently, Adams had less involvement with “Nimon” than any of the other serials that year, although I’ve always thought that the character of the co-pilot, with his catchphrase “Weakling scum!”, is a close cousin of that Vogon guard in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide who enjoys shouting “Resistance is useless!”
The co-pilot also gets to shout “Don’t play the fool with me!” That’s the second time in two stories. Somebody should really pay attention to letting the bad guys speak in those silly cliches.
Honestly, it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as either its reputation or as bad as I remember it. (Note: I’m wrong.) The stars are having fun, and so’s the famous actor playing the main villain, Graham Crowden. As with the other “middle” shows of this season, they’re having fun at the expense of the drama, but it’s the sort of fun that kids eat up. This one has a monster so ridiculous that it didn’t give Mr. Timid here even a hint of a fright. He thinks all these villains are being “too mean,” but he says it’s entertaining.
Plus, Lalla Ward just plain looks amazing in that fox hunt outfit. I know you can barely notice her in that picture above, what with that extra behind her stealing the frame by looking hypnotized, but it really is a terrific costume.
Told you we’d see Timothy Bateson again in a couple of nights! Bateson plays one of the great little one-off Doctor Who characters, a little old man who the locals sneeringly call Binro the Heretic. Binro’s great crime has been measuring the space between the lights in the night sky and concluding that those are suns just like the one in Ribos’s sky. I love how they take time in episode three for a quiet little moment where the kinder of the two con artists lets Binro know that he isn’t wrong.
Other than Bateson, I’m afraid these two episodes have a few actors who really get on my nerves, but Iain Cuthbertson’s delightful repartee with Tom Baker makes up for it. And while our son was thrilled and frightened by more run-ins with the scary Shrivenzale monster in the catacombs beneath the city, he loved seeing K9 again, and really liked the Doctor and Cuthbertson’s character pulling fast ones on each other, and the Doctor getting away with the macguffin that Cuthbertson thought that he had pocketed.
Before we get started with tonight’s story, I always like to point out that the old Marvel UK has been doing a completely terrific Doctor Who comic since the late seventies. It’s had its ups and downs, but the run of Fourth Doctor stories is really incredibly fun. Almost all the episodes were drawn by Dave Gibbons, and the writers include Pat Mills, John Wagner, and Steve Moore. They’re available in two volumes from Panini, and they fit beautifully in the continuity right between “The Invasion of Time” and this story, so check them out.
Back to television, and we’re in the fall of 1978 for Doctor Who‘s sixteenth season. Graham Williams is still the producer and Anthony Read the script editor. New in the TARDIS is Mary Tamm as Romana, a young woman from the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. Well, young-ish. She says she’s 140, and that the Doctor is lying about his age when he claims to be 746. He’s actually 749, she says.
This is the celebrated season where the Doctor and Romana search for a macguffin called the Key to Time across 26 episodes. The first adventure is my favorite of the six stories, an incredibly witty escapade written by Robert Holmes where our heroes stumble across two con artists pulling a scam on a disgraced, and easily offended, warlord. The lead criminal is played by Iain Cuthbertson, who seems like he’s having the time of his life. It’s set on a backwater planet where the superstitious locals haven’t yet discovered the telescope, and their relics are guarded by a savage, green monster that our son called a “multi-demon alien beast!”
I thought that our son might not enjoy this one because it’s too talky for him and doesn’t have any action scenes, but he surprised me by saying he isn’t enjoying it because it’s too scary! The green monster, which is called a Shrivenzale, is one of the program’s less impressive beasts, but its offscreen roaring and the worry it causes everybody has him convinced.
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!
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.