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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (part five)

“The Dæmons” is rightly criticized for its ending, but not for the right part of the ending. The problem isn’t the incredibly rushed and ridiculous part where Jo’s offer of self-sacrifice confuses Azal so much that he immediately starts shouting “Does not relate” – if he were a computer in a sixties drama like The Prisoner or Star Trek, he’d say “compute” – and then self-destructs, most of what he says lost in a whirl of keyboards and special sounds and actor Stephen Thorne bellowing.

No, the problem is all the film stuff they did before the studio session. It’s not just Jo retrieving her clothes from the pub when she was forced to change in the church, it’s the whole way everybody in the village just smiles and grins about all these soldiers turning up, their church exploding, and their new vicar being led away at gunpoint, and then decide it’s time for a nice fertility dance around the maypole. I guess it makes a decent enough image for the season finale, but there’s a pretty big church down the road from us, with their playground across the street, and if their building got blown up by a twenty foot tall 100,000 year-old dæmon from space, I bet that the parishioners wouldn’t be in a big rush to start a game of softball.

On the other hand, Nicholas Courtney is just incredibly entertaining in this episode. He steals the show right out from under Roger Delgado – no easy task – with his frustrated, rational, sensible responses to each new problem. And the fight with Bok is really impressive, too. Our son loved the explosions, both hitting Bok with a rocket from a bazooka and the great big one that destroys the church.

I don’t know whether it’s an old wives’ tale or Terrance Dicks pulling our leg, but there’s a great old story that the BBC received several complaints about blowing up that church for the sake of a silly entertainment show. You watch that today and know that it’s a miniature – a darn good one, mind, but still a miniature – and can’t believe that anybody, no matter how lousy the reception was on their antenna in 1971 to make them think the visual was better than it was, could possibly think they’d actually blow up a real church. But then you remember the stories about old ladies beating up Barry Morse with their handbags demanding he leave that nice Dr. Kimble alone, and all the telegrams the US Coast Guard received asking them to rescue Gilligan and the castaways, and you accept that yes, the BBC probably did get some angry phone calls.

We’ll start watching season nine of Doctor Who in September. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (parts three and four)

There is probably a thing or ten to dislike about each of the four Doctor Who serials that Barry Letts and Robert Sloman co-wrote, but while none of them are my favorites, I really enjoy the way that each captures a little essence of the early seventies in a perfect way. Even “The Time Monster,” which I probably enjoy more than anybody else, not that I’m going to call it art or anything.

“The Dæmons” is a lot like the Bigfoot episodes of the Bionic shows in that regard. From the bit in part one where Jo says that this really is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, they’re off in a story that couldn’t have been made in any other era. Of course there’s a Satanic coven sacrificing chickens underneath the village church. This was made in 1971, so I’d expect nothing less.

In About Time, Tat Wood assembled what I think is the best ever timeline of the UNIT stories, and he figures season eight as taking place from October 1971 to May 1 1973. This has to be May 1, because the Doctor gets caught up in the village’s sinister May Day celebrations. Wood also noted that this means that “The Dæmons” takes place on the same day as the events in the remarkable 1973 film The Wicker Man. What a delightful happy accident! “The Dæmons” uses some of the same iconography as horror films of the period, including, of course, The Devil Rides Out, Witchfinder General, Virgin Witch, and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man then served as the last word on the sinister subject, incorporating all that came before, including this Who adventure.

Because I have a mild interest in period horror films like these, and some of the other stuff that Hammer, Tigon, and their competitors released in the late sixties and early seventies – 1971’s Lady Frankenstein is another, but that may have more to do with Rosalba Neri than much else – my son has been aware of me talking about old horror movies but not getting to see them. He asked what a horror movie was earlier this year, and I think my explanation satisfied his curiosity completely. But one day down the line, he’ll probably look into scary movies. He may be quite some time in finding the interest in sampling creaky old stuff like the old Hammers or The Devil’s Wedding Night – Neri again – but if he ever does, the fear that “The Dæmons” sparked in him might just pop up in a little corner of his memory somewhere. Some of these scenes have him absolutely petrified, and he says, firmly, that this is the scariest Doctor Who story ever.

Not a bad little introduction to horror movies then, is it?

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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (part two)

I think that Bok the gargoyle is one of the great Doctor Who monsters of his day. He makes a tremendously horrifying first appearance at the end of part two of this story. Our kid was behind the sofa like a rocket and he’s grousing that this is not a good story, because it’s far too scary.

But with fear comes imagination. He’s let us know that since gargoyles are made from stone, then the Doctor will have to use a rock hammer against the menace. “And those weigh 20,000 pounds!”

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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (part one)

“The Dæmons” was the final story of Doctor Who‘s eighth season, and the first of four serials to be co-written by producer Barry Letts and his colleague Robert Sloman, who usually got the screen credit due to BBC regulations. This one’s got a pseudonym, Guy Leopold, attached. It was directed by Christopher Barry and the cast and crew had such a great time making it that it became the center of a million loving anecdotes and, in time, received wisdom among the fans of the early seventies turned this into one of the all-time Who classics.

I remember that in the early nineties, when a colorized “Dæmons” was finally shown again in the UK, there was a big backlash against it. It’s a story that really doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but it’s still a very, very fun story with lots of great moments. The problem was that for years and years, newer and younger fans in Britain had to put up with blowhards talking about the good old days, and how “The Dæmons” was an unparalleled UNIT classic, unlike all this eighties rubbish. The myth was just enormous. In the US, where the black-and-white TV movie compilation, with its massive editing error midway through it, was shown in most markets, we could see this story wasn’t the greatest thing ever, just a fun romp with lots of location filming and the Master leading a Satanic coven in a remote English village while posing as the new vicar.

A lot of this, it must be said, went over our son’s head, but he really impressed us with one observation. That’s the actress Damaris Hayman above as Miss Hawthorne, the local white witch, who warns of doom and disaster should an archaeological dig in the Devil’s Hump barrow continue. Our son spotted the ankh that she wears around her neck and noted that it’s the same symbol that Jessica wears in Logan’s Run. I can’t swear that I would have noticed that if he hadn’t pointed it out to us!

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part four)

Like many middle-aged American Doctor Who fans, I first found the series via the edited-into-a-movie omnibus versions that Lionheart syndicated in the mid-eighties. By that time, the BBC had wiped several of their color copies of Jon Pertwee episodes, and so five of the stories, including this one, were offered as black-and-white movies. I taped my copy off WGTV one Saturday night in 1986 and watched it so often I can still recite whacking great chunks of dialogue.

Color copies in various levels of condition – often poor – circulated for most of the episodes as well. A decade previously, Time-Life had successfully sold most of the Jon Pertwee stories, in their proper episode-by-episode form, to several PBS stations around the country. At least one person copied a 1977 broadcast of “Terror” on Chicago’s WTTW, and I landed a copy around 1991 or so. My eyes just about fell out of my skull when I saw it, not because the quality was so poor – it was probably fifth or sixth generation – but because it proved that the BBC’s black-and-white master copy had been cut by five or six seconds.

The black-and-white “Terror” that I’d seen a hundred times was one where the UNIT forces defeat the Autons pretty decisively. The shootout at the radio telescope at the show’s climax was kind of disappointing, but UNIT had the upper hand, for once. That’s because somebody decided to carefully snip out every shot in which a human gets blasted or knocked off the tower. It’s so nice to have a complete color copy of this fun story at last.

Our son also thought this was very fun in the end, giving this his thumbs-up “pretty cool” seal of approval. He thought the Autons’ daffodil was “crazy.” I remember reading about the daffodil around a year or so before I saw this story and thinking that was exceptionally grim when I was a teen: a weapon that kills you by gluing four square inches of clingfilm around your nose and mouth. Best not to linger on it. It’s no less grim in the cold light of middle age.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part three)

Last night’s episode, while “super duper scary,” did not produce any nightmares. I asked our son about it today and he said “Nope! I didn’t have a bad dream. I only had one dream, and it was about ice cream.” Nevertheless, when the Auton troll doll came back to life in tonight’s episode, he was back behind the sofa like a rocket.

For a long time in the eighties, the carnival-headed Autons were the only ones we had photos of. I love the delightful garish fellows in their “Plastic Comes to Town” bus, giving out the strange plastic daffodils. Although it did mean that I pictured these big-headed guys when I read the Terrance Dicks’s novelization of their first appearance, “Spearhead from Space,” which was entitled Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion. When I saw “Spearhead” some time later, at a Terminus TARDIS meeting at Emory, I was surprised to see those Autons were shop window mannequins with normal-sized heads.

This story’s writer, Robert Holmes, is often praised for how well he created worlds and backgrounds in dialogue without resorting to clumsy exposition. Probably only Douglas Adams did it as well as Holmes. Over these three episodes, we’ve seen so much about the Farrell family with so little screen time devoted to them. I didn’t really connect all the dots until Tat Wood pointed them out in volume 3 of About Time, but isn’t it strange that John Farrell and Mr. McDermott are so set in their ways that they don’t want Colonel Masters as a customer, even though the old plastics factory is clearly failing, running at less than half capacity, and this mysterious colonel is, on the surface, going to keep them at full production? The elder Farrell retires, their son turns the dying business around, and these two idiots can only think that Rex, played by Michael Wisher, must have done something wrong. Well, it turns out that he did, and he gets both of them killed, but their first instinct when they hear “revolutionize” is “Oh, God, what has Rex done now?”

I also note that there is no indication that Rex has visited his mother in the wake of his father’s murder. They must have had a grim and unhappy life, and then the Master came and made it even worse.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part two)

So, season eight of Doctor Who. It’s more colorful, isn’t it?

It’s not just the costumes, but they’re a start. Jon Pertwee has traded in his black and white for red and purple. In later stories, he’ll find some green and blue smoking jackets. The UNIT men have traded their beige uniforms for green. Caroline John had worn dark reds and blues. Katy Manning, the new companion, is very pink and yellow. And then there are the backgrounds…

Season eight is when Barry Letts made a more obvious mark on the look and feel of the program. He’d been brought on to produce season seven in an incredible rush, and was told to get some ideas together for a replacement program, because nobody at the BBC was certain that Who would continue after Pertwee’s first four stories. Letts would occasionally mention a little about what he’d worked out as that replacement: Snowy Black, sort of a BBC version of an ITC action drama with an Australian cowboy lead character. Since the same pipe-smoking “serious drama” people who ran the corporation were already unhappy about Paul Temple being sort of a BBC version of an ITC action drama, it’s hard to imagine Snowy Black succeeding. Letts never seemed to go into much detail into what he imagined for Snowy Black, and since he never revived the idea after leaving Who, he probably didn’t spend all that much time developing it.

Letts agreed to produce Who if he could still occasionally direct, and so “Terror of the Autons” became his return to the control room. It is colorful, garish, and looks downright weird. Letts fell completely in love with the blue-screen chromakey tech, and used it for every possible special effects shot, including creating places like museums, and, in part two, the kitchen of a small house. It’s not that it all looks fake necessarily – although it certainly does – it’s that it looks amazingly unreal.

You aren’t supposed to look at the environments of a television narrative, even environments as seen in modern TV that are created entirely by CGI over green-screen sets, and ask what in the world you’re seeing. You go to the movies and intuitively, immediately, instantaneously understand that Benedict Cumberbatch, dressed as Dr. Strange, was in a studio and computers filled in the weird world around him. You see the actress Barbara Leake in front of what seems to be a kitchen and it all looks so amazingly wrong that it becomes weirdly unsettling.

And it keeps happening! The same scene includes a pair of shots where the troll doll, an Auton weapon used by the Master, is played by an actor in a suit CSO’ed onto the “sitting room” set, and the special effects people can’t get the doll’s size right in relation to the furniture. So the milliseconds that it should take to process these weird images get a little prolonged. It doesn’t seem “bad,” to me; it seems “wrong.”

The troll doll is one of the great Doctor Who monsters. Does anybody else remember those from the seventies? They were unaccountably popular in the Scandinavian countries, but there was a shop in Vinings GA – the cottage on Paces Ferry where the Old Vinings Inn has thrived for many years – that had some of those beastly things in the windows and on the porch.

The doll succeeded in scaring the pants off my older kids. They watched this serial years apart. My older son was so worried that he asked me to keep his beloved teddy bear, Fluffy, in the den, and to put Fluffy in the freezer if he should come to life. (The Master’s doll is activated by heat.) My daughter saw it about five years later, and she didn’t just have an entire wall full of teddy bears, dolls and stuffed animals, she even had an inflatable chair. She slept in her brother’s bed that night.

Our favorite six year-old critic doesn’t actually have a teddy bear. Fingers crossed!

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons (part one)

There were a few big changes for Doctor Who as it started its eighth season. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks returned as producer and script editor. Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney, and John Levene were all back, but there were three major new additions to the cast.

First up, there’s Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates. The producers correctly decided that UNIT would feel more alive if it didn’t just cast new speaking parts with each new serial. Levene went from a recurring character to one who appears in each “present day” story, but the Brig needed a junior officer rather than an enlisted man for closer collaboration. Ian Marter, who would later play a different regular part, Harry Sullivan, was almost cast as Yates but had a prior commitment which would interfere with filming later stories. It’s kind of become trendy to mock Franklin’s casting; he doesn’t really radiate the macho action-officer vibe the writers seemed to want, but I like the character. He’s a bit ordinary here, but he gets a surprisingly good storyline a little later on.

And then there’s Katy Manning. On the one hand, her character, Jo Grant, is a very deliberate step backward from the resourceful and intelligent Zoe and Liz, and some of Terrance Dicks’s commentary about the requirements of a Doctor Who companion seem less and less sensible the older we get. She’s scatterbrained and silly. But she’s fantastic all the same. For somebody in the “damsel in distress” school of Who, she’s much more able than her dumb foibles in this episode would suggest, and she grows and matures like few other Who companions are allowed to. Jo is one of the greats.

But this episode is completely dominated by the villains. The Autons don’t get to do very much this time out, but never mind them, because the great Roger Delgado is here as the Master.

I don’t like the Master, generally. I just really, really like Roger Delgado. He spent his career playing forgettable guest star parts, a sheikh here, a Spanish ambassador there, usually a villain, usually quickly dispatched. Many of his earliest performances are lost, but he’s in two episodes of Quatermass II from 1955 and he’s the best thing about that whole fun production. Well, episode six is completely ridiculous, but the other five parts are pure quality and Delgado’s journalist is my favorite thing in them. See, it’s not that the Master’s a great villain; he’s usually a very silly and, eventually, tiresome villain, and every other actor who has ever played other incarnations of the Master is operating in Delgado’s long shadow, because he’s that good.

(Well, I guess Peter Pratt got to do something different and strange in his one-off appearance, but Anthony Ainley didn’t impress me until his last performance in the role, in 1989’s “Survival.” The less said about Eric Roberts drezzzing for the occasion in ’96 the better, Derek Jacobi didn’t have time to make an impact, and John Simm was godawful in his first two appearances. Michelle Gomez has been the first performer to really consistently satisfy me since Delgado, but even she was hamstrung by a self-consciously “wacky” Jim Carrey Riddler direction in “Death in Heaven.” She, and her scripts, improved a hundredfold after that, and darn if Simm didn’t rein it in and be completely fantastic in last week’s new episode.)

Anyway! Our son better get used to the Master, because he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. “You can X out me liking him,” he said with eyes wide. “He even shrunk that guy and put him in his own lunchbox!” He also noted that the Autons look somewhat different to the way we saw them last time. I foreshadowed a bit, and reminded him that anything plastic can be an Auton, not just mannequins.

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