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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts three and four)

Good grief, what a mess. The only reasons to watch the second half of this story are to see Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen rising way above the material with wit and charm and sparkles in their eyes, and to say goodbye to Ian Marter and John Levene, who make their final appearances here. It’s the last UNIT story of the seventies – and no, it’s not an “epilogue,” it’s got precisely the same number of regular UNIT characters as “The Invasion” or “The Silurians,” even if Nicholas Courtney isn’t in it – but because nobody making the program had definitively decided that, we didn’t get a proper goodbye to any of the characters. The Fourth Doctor says many times that he hates goodbyes, but audiences kind of like them. It would have been nice to let the Doctor actually tell his old friends that he isn’t going to be their scientific adviser anymore, shake hands, and wave farewell.

Subbing for Courtney in part four is Patrick Newell as Colonel Faraday. I’m predisposed to like Newell, a fine character actor best known for the recurring role of Mother in the Tara King years of The Avengers, but the script doesn’t give him anything interesting to do and the only idea anybody had for him seems to be “don’t imitate Courtney.” When some anonymous soldiers turn up at the end of the season with UNIT badges – now that really is the epilogue, not this – Colonel Faraday isn’t with them. Corporal Bell had more screen time than Faraday.

As for the rest of it, it’s all just bad guys talking tough and not staying around to see the trapped hero’s doom, unbelievably gullible patsies who believe the best, that sort of thing. Mission Control is a blue chromakey screen hung in front of a black curtain while four technicians act like they’re in a Gerry Anderson show and spend about a full minute counting things down instead of showing us anything interesting. That’s because the visual effects are either more stock footage of American rockets, or director Barry Letts returning to his weird old trick of blue-screening actors in front of a photograph. Doctor Who was a low budget program, true, but this is one of the most egregious examples in the 1970s of just plain looking cheap.

And then there’s the eyepatch. I did warn my wife that one of the all-time “oh, baloney” moments is in part four. I think that somewhere, something went awry in rehearsals and they didn’t have time to do this right. Twice, the Doctor tells Milton Johns’ character “You’ve been brainwashed,” and I am perfectly willing to accept that part of that brainwashing was making the man think he lost an eye in a rocket crash. That would have been just fine. Except what we see on screen is Johns removing his eyepatch, and, instead of forcing himself to fight the brainwashing and the illusion and realize, dramatically, that his eye really is there, he just takes off the patch and boom! There’s his eye! Styggron has been lying all this time!

And except for there was no reason whatsoever for Styggron to make him think he was missing an eye. It is utterly irrelevant to the drama except to give the character a chance to realize the Kraals are evil, and to make him look like Scott McCloud, Space Angel, when he’s in his astronaut suit and helmet.

Our son wasn’t wowed by this deeply dumb moment, but he did enjoy this story much more than he was willing to admit yesterday. This is definitely Doctor Who for six year-olds. He confessed that he really wasn’t scared by the first half (we knew) and gave this a mostly thumbs-up. He didn’t like that there was an android duplicate of the Doctor, but he loved our hero having a brawl with it.

With that in mind, as I mentioned, this is the final appearance in the show for John Levene and Ian Marter. Levene largely left the acting business after this and has lived in California since the early 1990s. I was surprised to see that he made an appearance in Beetleborgs, one of those Haim Saban programs that repurpose Japanese sci-fi teevee footage into an otherwise American show. Marter appeared frequently on television and in movies in the 1970s and early 1980s and also became a writer. He specialized in both Who books for Target and, under the pen name Ian Don, other novelizations of feature films like Splash and the dinosaur movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. He passed away of a heart attack on his 42nd birthday in 1986.

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts one and two)

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Well, when I was in middle school, several of us were making our own sort-of versions of these. They were called Gamebooks, and my mate Blake, who you may recall from previous chapters about Doctor Who, developed them alongside his classmates Nathan Mize and Mark Hester. In a Gamebook, the front of a sheet of notebook paper was a densely-packed chapter of an adventure, with three options about what you would do next on the bottom of the page. You turned it over to see what would happen: usually, two options would have you dying, and only one left you able to proceed to the next chapter.

They started making these in early 1983, about a year before WGTV started showing Who, and some of the rest of us started copying them and eventually began writing our own stories. Probably close to a dozen of us kids made these over a three year period. They passed the time in class when we were bored and weren’t in the mood to draw comics. Over time, we’d change the rules and the format a little, incorporating coin tosses, die rolls, hit points, and alternating storylines, like the end of chapter one’s options might resolve to death, proceeding to chapter two, or proceeding to chapter three.

I mention all this because, inevitably, I made a sprawling Doctor Who Gamebook from my memories of the first seven stories that I saw, starting the Gamebook the morning after I first saw this in 1984. Sadly, this no longer exists – even more sadly, literally hundreds of pages of Who comics that I made between the ages of 13 and 15 do exist, and no, you can’t see them – but I mention it today because I clearly remember two key points about it.

One, I could not draw a Kraal to save my life. Granted, I was 12, and couldn’t draw much of anything to save my life, but I redid that dumb drawing of Styggron six or seven times and just could not do it.

Two, this Gamebook went on forever, with seven alternating storylines. Chapter 19 might have been a “Pyramids of Mars” chapter, with the results taking you to chapter 27 or 32, and chapter 20 might have continued the “Genesis of the Daleks” story, with results taking you to chapter 23 (where you’d reach the same grisly end that a wrong decision in chapter 15 might have sent you), 24, or 31. We didn’t write these things “by story,” we wrote them literally one chapter after the next, so there wasn’t any advance planning. And somehow or another, the Doctor Who Gamebook concluded after ninety-some or a hundred-odd chapters, and I hadn’t included a way out of the “Android Invasion” storyline. Every single option the Doctor had eventually led him to his death, because I didn’t include a chapter where he could win. It wasn’t the Daleks or Sutekh who finally killed our hero, it was the silly old Kraals!

Well, if you’ve been following along linearly instead of just reading the Doctor Who chapters, you may recall that our son needed a little light adventure after the horrors of the last couple of Who stories. “The Android Invasion” is perfectly placed for that. It sticks out like a sore thumb in season thirteen because it’s comparatively light and tame, and because the Kraals really aren’t much of a threat. The adventure was written by Terry Nation, and it was directed, for the last time, by former producer Barry Letts.

And, because our son has decided to be contrary, he’s telling us that this story is even scarier than “Pyramids.” We don’t believe him, because he isn’t reacting the same way that he does to real frights, but he’s chosen to insist that the situation is unbearably creepy and the Kraals are terrifying. The story is the sort of thing that Steed and Mrs. Peel might have investigated, before it takes an extraterrestrial turn, anyway, and he’s seen them tackle something similar twice already, so it isn’t that creepy. Deserted English village, weird clues about what’s going on, like brand new currency and telephones that only work sporadically… yes, this is very much like what Terry Nation concocted for programs like The Avengers or The Persuaders!, but bent into the Doctor Who shape.

One thing that I will give our son, though, is that he really didn’t enjoy most of the classic story from season seven, “Inferno,” because of the scenes where the Doctor confronts villainous duplicates of his friends. There’s a little echo of that here, as RSM Benton and Lt. Harry Sullivan appear to be working for the bad guys, but the Doctor figures it out at the end of part two. He and Sarah aren’t on Earth. It’s not just the white-suited “mechanics” that are robots. Everybody is, including Benton and Harry, and this village is a simulation, a testing site for the Kraals’ invasion of Earth.

It’s going to get a little bogged down and really silly in the second half, but I enjoyed these two parts quite a lot, despite some dopey plot holes. It’s a good example of the atmosphere being so entertaining that you can overlook the story’s minor deficiencies. Unless you just want to absolutely insist that you’re scared, anyway.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part four)

If you were to ask me, the boring old Mr. Grouchy Adult that I am, I’d say that “Robot” could have been safely wrapped up in three episodes. But that would rob our son of his favorite part of the serial. The Brigadier blasts the robot with the disintegrator gun, and, thanks to a little technobabble magic, the robot grows to giant size.

From the boring light of adulthood, this doesn’t look particularly convincing, and while director Christopher Barry does as good a job as can be expected, something shows up in shot after shot that destroys a grown-up’s suspension of disbelief. At the very least, it genuinely does look better than those dinosaurs from a few stories ago.

But our kid adored it. He shouted “Whoops!” when the robot started growing and it was all as convincing to him as Hollywood’s latest bit of CGI mayhem. After that mid-serial lull, he completely loved this story, and he believed in it, because he’s six and hasn’t become jaded by special effects. The new Doctor’s off to a fine start for him, and, with Lt. Harry Sullivan joining the Doctor and Sarah in the TARDIS, it’s time for Barry Letts to leave the role of producer to the new man in charge, Philip Hinchcliffe. And we’ll see what his take on the series will be this weekend.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part three)

Beginning with the most important thing about tonight’s episode, our son was much, much happier with it. It’s full of action and explosions, and at the end, a tank shows up, which thrilled him to no end, as he knew instinctively that the tank would be disintegrated.

It’s also full of UNIT troops not using their brains very much. The villains and the robot escape from the SRS meeting because not one of the dozen or so soldiers thinks to shoot out their truck’s tires. Honestly, this story could have ended here and been a satisfying three-parter. All the business at the bunker is less entertaining than what’s come before. It’s never more entertaining than when the Doctor agrees with the Brigadier that only Great Britain could be trusted with international secrets, because the rest are all foreigners. That’s one of my favorite lines in the whole program.

Unfortunately, there’s a conclusion that will require some visual effects trickery, something not unlike what we saw in the story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” To make the joins a little less visible, if you take my meaning, the production team decided to mount this entire production on videotape. That way we won’t have the tank in part three (and the robot in part four) videotaped in the studio on a blue screen, and then chromakeyed into a 16mm film picture.

Part of me is glad that they learned from their earlier work, but another, bigger, part of me just loathes the look and feel of “outside broadcast” location video. This was only used sporadically until Doctor Who‘s last four seasons in the late eighties, when the whole program was taped. I’m absolutely fine with it in the studio, but sending those sorry camcorders on location just emphasizes the robot’s unreality to me. It’s a shame they couldn’t have taken both a film camera and an OB camera on location, videotaped the necessary bits for the visual effects team and filmed all the action stuff. It would have looked so much better.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part two)

I’m afraid I spoke too soon when I said last time that this is a straightforward and simple adventure for six year-olds. This episode introduces the plot complication that the villains, Miss Winters and Mister Jellico, are members of a fascist fringe group called the Scientific Reform Society, and that just left our son behind completely. The scene where Sarah puts on her journalism hat and trendy seventies clothes and gets some information from them might as well have been delivered in pig Latin, because he didn’t get what was happening at all!

Actually, what he really needs to take from this scene is that the delightful thing about watching old television is that we can time travel back to the days when outfits like that were the in thing. Once they put a stop to Winters and Jellico, Sarah’s going to wear this outfit when she interviews Elton John before his Saturday night gig at the Rainbow.

After starting well, this one’s obviously cratering a bit for him. He loved part one, was thrilled by the sight of the giant robot, and the Doctor’s oddball rudeness, including going to sleep on his lab table, is really fun for him. But then we not only got all talky with people who didn’t make sense to him, but also the Doctor has a cliffhanger confrontation with the robot that really looks like it’s going very badly for him.

It strikes me that seeing the Doctor in physical jeopardy and about to get beaten up isn’t a very common turn of events in the show. Another incident was the end of part three of “The Three Doctors.” He was also very, very aggravated when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was getting thrown around Omega’s “mind palace” by the villain’s weird pig-faced champion. Revealing a monster or a Dalek or a giant robot is a thrill, but seeing the hero get pummeled is emphatically not.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part one)

At the end of 1974, Tom Baker’s first episode of Doctor Who first aired. Writer Terrance Dicks believed that this should be a simple and straightforward adventure story for audiences to get used to the new lead actor, and he seems to have absolutely nailed how to hook any six year-olds in the crowd. Our kid loved this. There are no politics and no complicated “life in the seventies was like this” distractions about communes or meditation centers. There’s just a big stomping robot stealing the ingredients for a top secret disintegrator gun. Along the way, the Doctor checks himself out of the sick bay, frustrates UNIT’s medical officer, and tries on some new clothes. There’s not a six year-old on the planet who wouldn’t enjoy this.

Behind the scenes, this is a time of massive change. “Robot” was videotaped at the end of the same production block as Jon Pertwee’s last stories, making it the final story for Barry Letts as producer. He’ll be back in different capacities down the line, though. It’s the first story for Robert Holmes, who had written several memorable stories previously, as the script editor, but the previous script editor is still around! Terrance Dicks kind of shamelessly told the new boy that there was a BBC tradition that incoming script editors were expected to promptly commission a script from their predecessor. This way, while Dicks was no longer on the BBC payroll, he could still net some quick freelance work before his next assignment. The director is Christopher Barry, the veteran who had helmed several Who serials already, including Patrick Troughton’s first story.

Onscreen, UNIT, represented again by Nicholas Courtney and John Levene, has a new member, a naval medical officer called Harry Sullivan, played by Ian Marter. He had been up for the role of Captain Yates four years previously, and was cast because the original ideas for a new Doctor had been for an older and less active leading man. Famously, Richard Hearne and Fulton Mackay had been offered the part, but both of them turned it down – in Mackay’s case, because a sitcom pilot he’d done, Porridge, had been picked up as a series – and it went to Tom Baker, then forty years old and not getting nearly as much acting work as he should have had. His agent couldn’t find him anything after he’d filmed The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in the summer of ’73 and he was working with a construction crew in London to make ends meet while the movie was in theaters. The glamour of showbiz, folks.

And of course Elisabeth Sladen is back as Sarah Jane. This is one of the few times that we get to see her working as a journalist, and unknowingly – because, again, this is a simple story for the young viewers to easily manage – working the other end of the disintegrator gun angle. UNIT and the Doctor are looking into the thefts and she’s working on a story about the thieves, leading up to a memorable cliffhanger when the great big robot looms over her. We don’t see the robot in full just yet, which our son loved. He said that he now knows what its feet, hands, and head look like, and now he just needs to see the body and legs!

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part six)

Let’s get the unfortunate facet of this story out of the way: I’ve never been able to suspend disbelief in The Great One. The super-giant spider remarkably looks even more fake than the regular-giant ones. They’re fine when they don’t move; in fact, when they’re perched on people’s backs, they’re a little creepy. But The Great One badly, badly needed to be filmed rather than videotaped. That would have improved this critically important visual so much.

So no, I’m not going to pretend “Planet of the Spiders” is an unappreciated classic, certainly not with all the woeful acting and design on the alien planet, but it’s a lot better than I credited it. We enjoyed the heck out of this story. There’s a real sense of urgency and desperation that is almost entirely lacking in Pertwee’s final season. It’s a fabulously entertaining set of episodes, and all the actors who aren’t playing alien villagers are just great. I really liked John Dearth just completely losing his composure and yelling at the spiders.

This serial notably marks the first time that the program actually refers to that bit of casting change where a different actor plays the Doctor as “regeneration.” Interestingly, the changeover from Hartnell to Troughton was first explained as a rejuvenation that the TARDIS managed, and the next one, when Troughton became Pertwee, was something that the Time Lords did to him when they exiled him to Earth. Part six of this story is the first time that it’s stated that regeneration is what happens when a Time Lord’s body gets too old or damaged to continue living, making regeneration itself an interesting retcon. There are some more rules, and a very fascinating retcon that didn’t take, to come as the show goes on.

We learn a little about regeneration through the explanation of the Abbot K’anpo Rimpoche, another Time Lord who lives on Earth, and who is assisted by a projection of his next incarnation, a man who goes by the name Cho-Je. K’anpo/Cho-Je are never seen in the series again, which is kind of strange when you consider the Doctor’s great fondness for him; K’anpo is the old hermit who lived on the mountain that the Doctor visited when he was a child. The next Doctor is far too unsentimental to renew contact, but you’ve got to figure some of the later versions would have stopped by that meditation center for tea whenever they were on Earth.

Actually, what if during the sixties, when the twelfth was lecturing at that college in Bristol and Professor Chronotis was at St. Cedd’s in Cambridge… nah. There’s probably fanfic, though.

Anyway, some big goodbyes to note with this story. This is script editor Terrance Dicks’ last serial on the production team, though his work with Doctor Who as a freelancer would carry on for many years. It’s also the last appearance for Richard Franklin as Mike Yates, who sadly doesn’t get anything of a farewell scene after four years as a co-star. Franklin has mainly worked as a stage actor after Who, but he has occasionally turned up in small parts here and there, notably in an episode of Blake’s 7 and as an Imperial engineer in Rogue One.

And of course it’s goodbye to Jon Pertwee. He lost a lot of enthusiasm when Roger Delgado died and Katy Manning moved on; the pending departures of Franklin, Dicks, and, after the next story, producer Barry Letts left him very sad and he decided that only a very large pay increase would keep him around. He told the anecdote about the BBC Head of Drama Shaun Sutton turning down his demand about a million times, only for Letts to repeatedly come behind him with a harrumph to clarify that actors simply didn’t approach the Head of Drama that way.

Pertwee was often very open about his dissatisfaction in not landing leading roles for the rest of his career. He’d spent many years as a popular comedian on radio and in films before starring in Who for half a decade, and in the rest of the seventies he was often seen hosting the Thames game show Whodunnit before taking on the role of Worzel Gummidge in the children’s TV classic. However, casting directors seemed to see him in that “jack of all trades” school and he never got many of the meaty guest star parts where really good character actors excel. He also did lots of voice acting and was one of two Doctors to appear as guest stars in Young Indiana Jones. He returned to the part in 1983’s “The Five Doctors” and, a decade later, in a pair of radio plays written by Barry Letts. He was seen as the show’s elder statesman for all the 30th anniversary celebrations, which saw “Planet of the Daleks” repeated on BBC1.

Jon Pertwee passed away in May of 1996, but we’ve got a couple of his earlier performances coming up on the blog very soon. And while we’re taking a short break from Doctor Who for now, we will resume with Tom Baker’s first season in just a few weeks, so stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part five)

This is another story that’s turning out to be much better than its reputation, and much better than I remembered it, which is nice. Yes, all the two-legs on Metebelis Three are beyond awful, but everything else is very exciting and really well directed.

It’s also sinking in just how much of this story happens in its last episode. The next twenty-five minutes are going to be packed.

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