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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts three and four)

“The Deadly Assassin” aims for a really big ending, but it’s always felt hollow to me. I get what they were trying to do. The idea is that after hundreds of thousands of years, maybe millions, the actual scientific basis for the Time Lords’ power, and their ability to regenerate, has been lost to time and passed into legend, and the present day Time Lords are so lackadaisical and incurious that nobody really cares about anything other than the legend. The only person who knows the actual technical stuff would either be the Time Lords’ president (and that’s a maybe), and various renegades like the Doctor and the Master, who figure it out. So far so good.

The problem is that the execution is rushed and ridiculous, even for Doctor Who. The Doctor hears this legend once, related by a computer recording, and instantly figures everything out, and then we see that the mythical Eye of Harmony is a real thing – the nucleus of a black hole – located directly underneath the Time Lords’ capital building, accessible by a twelve-foot tall obsidian monolith that serves as some kind of dampening rod for the power of a collapsed star. And nobody knows about this.

(Even more ridiculous, the Doctor and the characters played by George Pravda’s and Erik Chitty are trapped in a vault a hundred feet underneath the level where the Master pulls up the great big control rod. You’re telling me there’s not a blueprint of this building? Nobody ever looked at it and asked what’s between the main level and the vault? Only a black hole, it’s not important…)

Actually, what annoys me more is that this story makes some very specific statements about the Time Lords that just about every subsequent story gets completely wrong. It’s not just the “special occasions only” bit of their iconic costumes, this story is really clear all the way through it that Time Lords are certain people on Gallifrey, a specific ruling class, and not the entire population. Later on, we’d start hearing that TARDISes not only get their power from the Eye of Harmony, there are Eyes of Harmony actually onboard every vehicle. It’s almost like subsequent writers and producers just read a recap of this story and never understood the implications and the specifics.

But before it all falls apart, it’s very entertaining. I loved episode three’s very long chase and fight in the hallucinatory world of the Matrix, which was shot entirely on film. We’ve never seen the Doctor so desperate, dirty, and bloody before. He and Bernard Horsfall have a really excellent brawl. It was Horsfall’s last appearance in Who, and he went down fighting.

Our son, who was more frightened by the desperation and the urgency of the story than usual, grumbled that this wasn’t exciting because there were not enough explosions in Horsfall and Tom Baker’s fight. I think that sometimes when he gets frightened, he pretends that he’s not having a good time. Earlier today, out of the blue, he started asking me about the Autons. It’s neat that the show leaves such an impact and keeps him wondering and thinking about it, even when actually watching it often leaves him feigning dissatisfaction.

About which, it’s established in part four of this story for the very first time that Time Lords get twelve regenerations, and after that, nothing can cheat death. They’ll change that in time, too. We talked about how this means that, at this stage anyway, there can be thirteen Doctors. As I was writing this, our son proved that he is still wondering and thinking about the show. He came downstairs to suggest that there should be fourteen Doctors, because the second-into-third regeneration in his mind didn’t count. He didn’t think that was a real regeneration because “the Time Lords just used a machine to change his face.” I said that no, that was the second actual regeneration.

Although maybe somebody should have told Steven Moffat this idea in 2013. I’m sure that while he was messing up the numbering between the two Tennants and John Hurt, he could have found room for my son’s idea. It’ll only make Whittaker number 16 instead of 15 when her actual number is 13… no biggie!

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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts one and two)

For many people who participate in fandom, the past is always preferable to the present. It’s not unique to Doctor Who, you see it in many long-running franchise fandoms, especially Star Wars. 1977’s “The Deadly Assassin,” written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney (who, again, cast Bernard Horsfall in a key supporting role), is a funny case study. The fandom that existed in 1977 was of the typewriter-and-mimeograph school. Zines and newsletters from that year show that fans hated this story.

By the early eighties, it was considered a modern classic. Some of my first fan purchases were things like Peter Haining’s 1983 book Doctor Who: A Celebration and some 1982-84 issues of Doctor Who Magazine and they all praised the show. But in ’77, the fan press was howling for blood. They got Gallifrey wrong, apparently. It’s a funny complaint. We’d seen three Time Lords in 1969 being all old and boring and putting the second Doctor on trial, and we’d seen three other Time Lords in 1973, also old, arguing in a garish control room. What’s new in 1977 is they have different clothes – the script specifies that they’re “seldom-worn,” for special occasions, and every costume designer since has reused them as casualwear – and, instead of being a unified mass of TV aliens who groupthink as one, these Time Lords have individual characters, and they squabble, plot, and stab each other in the back. The fans of ’77 were so silly.

Another complaint was that they brought back the Master after Roger Delgado’s death, but why shouldn’t they? Although I should point out that somebody suggested that in a parallel universe, they cast Peter Wyngarde as the Master opposite Tom Baker, and I want a dimension-hopping travel machine RIGHT NOW to see those episodes. Wow! Just imagine that for a minute. The Master in our less amazing universe is played by Peter Pratt in this story, wearing a grotesque, skeletal costume. When I first saw this at age 12 in 1984, he also reminded me of the Incredible Melting Man.

(Sidenote: Around the same time that my three best pals in seventh grade were refusing to watch Doctor Who, we were all devoted fans of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, which I think was shown Saturday or Sunday afternoon in Atlanta on WATL-36. The first episode that I caught was The Incredible Melting Man, which fueled my tweenage love and obsession with skeletal people. Other favorites, which we recounted and replayed in class as loudly as possible, were Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the based-on-a-true-story (suuuuuure) Monstroid, and the Gamera: Super Monster compilation movie. Wikipedia tells me these all aired during our seventh grade year. Because the four of us were spectacular troublemakers, we were separated into different “pods” in the eighth grade. Whenever we’d manage to pass each other in the halls the next year, we’d shout “So Sad About Gloria!” at each other. As Manos is to MST3K, So Sad About Gloria was to Elvira.)

Now, a year ahead of me in the eighth grade was another best pal, Blake, who wanted to watch the show, but couldn’t. “The Deadly Assassin” seems to have first aired in Atlanta on April 7, 1984, by which time, in the UK, Colin Baker’s first story had just finished airing. I spent the rest of that spring raving about the skeletal Master and how cool he was, and hoped that I would see his earlier appearances one day. I drew him all the time.

So I wasn’t all that pleased when, in the first week of July – I’ll explain how I can date that so precisely later – Blake phoned me, having found a copy of Starlog‘s American release of the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Special, as related in this post, and proceeded to rubbish two claims I’d made. First, as related earlier, he called hogwash on my claim that the anti-matter monster looked cool because the magazine printed a production photo of it, proving it looked pretty dopey before they finished the visual effects trickery. Second, as Blake put it, “the Master’s not a skeleton man, he’s some normal guy with a beard!”

I didn’t just run down to Blake’s house to see this magazine, I stormed down there.

I got some relief from a single sentence on page 25: “Peter Pratt played the Master in emaciated form in The Deadly Assassin.” But while grown-up me appreciates the great work by all the actors who have played the Master, particularly Roger Delgado, twelve year-old me could only snarl and complain “Well, he looked a lot cooler when he was 'emaciated'!”

Tonight, though, our son thought the new-look Master was astonishingly creepy, although he’d forgotten the Master’s old calling card of shrinking people to death and wasn’t entirely clear on how there’s a “to death” part of the equation. It took me quite a few minutes to realize that he didn’t understand that the Master’s “matter condenser” isn’t a “shrink ray” in the traditional sci-fi sense – and which we’ll see in a story next month – it’s a death-ray that leaves your corpse shrunken. He gets it now, but I’m afraid he probably wishes he hadn’t asked. Nasty way to die.

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The Avengers 5.2 – The Fear Merchants

A quarter of a century ago, when I was young and had stars in my eyes and wanted to be a television writer, I daydreamed of making a very off-key and off-kilter cop show called Department of Murder. I spent a lot of time devising characters and plots, and one thing I definitely wanted to do was bring back these villains: the Business Efficiency Bureau, a trio of psychologists and experts who can be hired to literally eliminate the competition. They do so by identifying phobias and driving business rivals out of their minds.

About the only thing you can say against Philip Levene’s “The Fear Merchants,” which introduced the baddies for what would sadly be their only appearance – The Avengers was rarely a show for return engagements – is that it needs one more bit of oomph to make their villainy work. When they learn one target has agoraphobia, they just dump him in Wembley Stadium and that’s it, he’s incapacitated permanently. The episode needed a fear gas or a some sort of mental programming to really push people over the edge once the villains work their efficiency magic to make the episode both a little more believable and sinister.

Otherwise, it’s just so fun! Our son needed a little help following this one, and he had no idea why I collapsed in laughter over one of the all-time great sight gags, where the camera is following somebody dressed like Steed, until Steed and Mrs. Peel come around a corner and it starts following them instead. He also didn’t understand that the Business Efficiency Bureau changes its business from a monthly retainer into a monthly blackmail payment. In his defense, not only is he still very young, but Levene’s script is delightfully subtle about how the hired firm suddenly becomes the dominant partner. But he absolutely loved the great fight that Steed has with Garfield Morgan, who’d later play DCI Haskins, Regan’s boss in The Sweeney. They brawl in a pit with a bulldozer teetering on the edge above them!

In the cast, Patrick Cargill, who we saw in last season’s “The Murder Market,” is the main villain, and the wonderful Brian Wilde is the businessman who bought a lot more trouble than he bargained for. In smaller parts as Wilde’s rivals, there are the familiar-to-us faces of Edward Burnham, Bernard Horsfall, and Andrew Keir, who would star in Quatermass and the Pit later the same year. Sadly, Annette Carell, who was a frequent guest star in British adventure shows of the period, passed away about nine months after this was shown.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part six)

The Thals turn out to be pretty good guerrilla fighters against the Daleks once the Doctor shows up. Two Daleks get killed by the liquid ice explosion in their tunnel, two more are killed by the bomb, one falls all the way down the ventilator shaft, two get led into the ice pool on the surface, and two more are locked forever in the sealed germ lab with lethal bacteria. That seems to leave seven in this episode, so maybe sixteen on the planet in total. The Thals said that there were about a dozen Daleks here. They were off by four. Their hit and run tactics are better than their field intelligence, I guess.

In the best scene in this episode, the newly-arrived Dalek Supreme, represented by a refurbished prop from the two Dalek movies produced by Amicus in the 1960s, gets sick of one of the seven remaining Daleks’ failure and exterminates him. Our son, who really, really enjoyed all the last-minute escapes and explosions this time, had eyes like dinner plates. “Daleks killing other Daleks?!” he shouted, amazed. He was petrified by the bit where the Doctor has to drop down onto the floor of the Daleks’ refrigeration chamber and retrieve a bomb while groggy Daleks start emerging from hibernation and hid behind the sofa.

One other little moment of note: the show has told us that Jo has gone into space four times now: “Colony in Space,” “The Curse of Peladon,” “The Mutants,” and the arc of these last three stories. (Since she begins “Frontier” wearing the same outfit she wore in “Carnival,” and has Drashigs fresh on her mind, I suggest they didn’t go back to Earth between the two.) This is the second of her four trips away from our planet where she’s broken the heart of a space boyfriend. Fortunately, she looks pretty well done with space travel by the end of this one.

(Although, twelve years after this serial was made, a later TV adventure called “Timelash” would establish that this Doctor took Jo and an unnamed third traveling companion to the planet Karfel, the setting for that story. Ten years after “Timelash,” the author Paul Leonard wrote a pair of novels for Virgin Books that explained that little continuity blip, and showed that sometime after “Planet of the Daleks” but before the next adventure, the Doctor, Jo, and Captain Yates had some adventures together. I’ll only accept that as canon if Jo broke some other spaceman’s heart along the way.)

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part five)

I don’t know why it amuses me so much in this story when the whole of seventies and eighties Doctor Who is plagued by harsh lighting, reflective surfaces, giant cracks in the studio sets where two big pieces of wood fit together, and “make everything look fake” videotape, but I swear all the stagehands who worked on “Planet of the Daleks” shared the greasiest pizza ever baked in Britain before they set up the Daleks and the props in this story. There are handprints and fingerprints on every visible surface in the Dalek base.

And, as befits a show that looks for some kind of in-story explanation for why the second Doctor looks so much older and grayer in a story made in 1985 than his final adventure back in ’69, somebody once suggested that there are handprints all over the transparent cube that houses the killer bacteria because the humanoid Spiridons left their greasy mitts all over it. My point is that if somebody had wiped the dumb thing down with a cloth before they started taping, nobody would be distracted by the unreality of the visual in the first place, and besides, there are fingerprints all over one Dalek’s eyepiece in one of the closeups, and I don’t think you’re going to convince me that the Daleks are all that likely to let the Spiridons get that up close and personal with them.

In other news, Prentis Hancock’s annoying character gets killed this time, and our son is pretty much at the point where only the lack of explosions are keeping this off his list of favorite stories. He is having an absolute blast with this one. It’s the perfect Who adventure for six year-olds, but he really likes explosions.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part four)

There are many reasons why I try to avoid being negative about an actor when I don’t like the performance. For one, I try to be a positive person these days. For another, I once said something dismissive on Usenet two decades ago about the actor Elijah Wood after he played a creep in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, and I think I closed that email account after three years of hate mail from offended Elijah Wood fans. But mainly it’s because I’m not quite as intemperate and opinionated a blowhard as I once was, and try to recognize the difference between an actor I may perceive as grating and their performance as a grating character. That’s why the less said about Michael Hawkins’ performance as the general in the previous story, the better.

But this time out, we’ve got Prentis Hancock, whom I have never liked in anything. Mind you, I’ve only actually seen him in four or five things, counting a dozen or so Space: 1999 episodes as “one thing,” but you know what I mean. It’s easy to leave a story like “Planet of the Daleks” wanting to punch him in the mouth, but that might be because no actor could rescue this moron of a character, acting impetuous and idiotic and getting all the heroes in trouble. Is it fair to blame Hancock for the one-dimensional dimwit that Terry Nation wrote? It’s not like he had the opportunity for subtlety, is there?

On the other hand, I like Bernard Horsfall a lot, but his character isn’t done any favors by the gender politics of Terry Nation’s script, either. This time, he successfully lays the guilt on his girlfriend for coming to Spiridon on the second mission, asking her how she could expect him to risk her life on this mission, and didn’t she realize that she’s now put them all in danger because he may be too worried about her to act? “No,” said my wife, seething, “she thought you could act like a professional. Jerk.” How does Horsfall come away from a similarly stupid character with my admiration for his performance while Hancock makes me want to throw things at the screen?

For what it’s worth, Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning remain magical in a production that sees Jo briefly dazed by a falling rock so big that it should have split her skull like a grapefruit, and the sinister eyes of jungle animals represented by colored light bulbs. And the Daleks – they’re the reason we’re here! – have our son absolutely enraptured. This time, two get blown “to kablooey” and another falls down a deep ventilator shaft to be smashed to pieces many hundreds of feet below. I kind of prefer these less indestructible Daleks to the modern kind, even if they do look like they’re made from wood with reflective paint.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part three)

The first time I watched (most of) “Planet of the Daleks,” on PBS around 1987, I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t impressed when I watched it again after getting a complete copy in 1994 either. But about nine years after that, I watched it with my older son, then about six, and got a new appreciation for it. This is definitely a story to watch with a kid, as we experienced again tonight. The thrill that a child has for Daleks, and the total conviction they have in their cruelty and their power, almost totally overshadows any production problems or scripting silliness.

You can be a curmudgeon on your own; watching this story with a kid is huge fun. Ours was excited, worried, frantic, and, when the ice-volcano erupts and two Daleks are splashed with gallons and gallons of “ice hot lava,” absolutely pleased. We briefly debated whether that shouldn’t be called “ice cold lava” before paying attention to the next bit of running down corridors. Upstairs, now, his nightly playtime before bed has been interrupted several times while Mommy has been threatened with extermination.

Note that I say “almost totally.” Kids can love Daleks all they want, but nothing can save the next Dalek serial that they made, the following year. That thing’s a complete turkey.

Anyway, the reason I’m less familiar with this story than almost all the others from the era that I’ve seen many times is that Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in the 1980s, deliberately provided stations with a badly edited version. As I’ve mentioned previously, the BBC wiped many of Jon Pertwee’s color tapes, retaining only black and white film prints for export to countries who hadn’t switched to color yet instead. Lionheart’s package of the 24 Jon Pertwee stories, edited into TV movies, included five black and white movies and nineteen color ones.

However, both “Planet of the Daleks” and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” from the following season, were idiotically offered as color TV movies with their missing color segments simply cut out. Since part three of this story was missing in color, the narrative of the movie version just jumps from the character telling Bernard Horsfall “Somewhere on this planet there are ten thousand Daleks!” to a scene a few minutes into part four, once everyone has escaped from the Dalek base. Twenty-five minutes just chopped out. I know I’ve said that these six-parters are all about one episode too long, but that’s insane. They should have syndicated it as a complete black and white movie. It was good enough for “The Daemons.”

(Even weirder, I’ve read that Lionheart also offered this in its mostly-original episodic format, only with the credits remade, so the American “part three” was the original “part four,” and so on. Since WGTV only bought the Pertwee adventures as TV movie compilations, we never saw it like that in Atlanta, but I wonder whether this version included the escape from the refrigeration room that was cut out of the TV movie.)

Anyway, the version of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” that they offered was, while still obnoxious, not quite as incoherent since the missing color part was the opening episode, and so it looked like the movie began with the adventure already in progress. I hope we’ll be watching this story in about one month’s time, and I’ll talk more about that when we get there, but it was also one that I skipped copying off air.

There’s a terrific short documentary on the DVD about how they rebuilt this episode and restored the color. It took two separate projects: traditional colorizing done by a firm in Los Angeles, and a really neat project in London that extracted color information – chroma-dots – from a black and white telerecording. It’s absolutely wonderful to finally see this episode just about exactly as it was first taped.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (parts one and two)

“Invisible Daleks!” shouted our son. Yes, indeed.

“Planet of the Daleks” is another story that I’m not actually all that familiar with. I’ve maybe seen it in full only twice. I never recorded it off-air when WGTV played it – I’ll explain why in the next post – and didn’t get a VHS copy until early 1994, a few months after BBC-1 had shown the story in a very nice 30th anniversary surprise. On those rare occasions when Doctor Who had been repeated, it was on BBC-2, not the main channel, but they commissioned a new documentary about the show and gave it a prime time berth for six weeks of garish and very dated glam rock purple and green videotape, leading The Sunday Times to observe that the show didn’t seem to actually time travel very well.

It was a return for both director David Maloney, who hadn’t worked on Who in four years, and writer Terry Nation, who’d been busy with other things for seven. Among them: he’d been on the staff of The Baron, The Avengers, and The Persuaders! while contributing freelance scripts to several other ITC shows. He’d failed to sell a Dalek TV series to any of the American networks, and the BBC passed on a curious and entertaining pilot film with the unfortunate name of The Incredible Robert Baldick.

For what it’s worth, Maloney hired Bernard Horsfall, one of his regular go-to actors. Always nice to see Horsfall at work, even if he’s stuck under a ridiculous blond wig in this story. He also hired Prentis Hancock, and would again when he directed “Planet of Evil” three years later. I can’t claim to enjoy Hancock’s acting quite as much as I do Horsfall’s.

“Planet” is kind of Nation-by-the-numbers, only taped in a remarkable and eye-poppingly busy jungle set and dealing with invisible aliens who have been enslaved by the Daleks on the hostile planet of Spiridon. It’s not a story that aspires to very much more than wowing the under-tens in the audience.

As for our own under-ten, he seems to like this story much, much more than he did “Frontier in Space,” and spent the hour alternately wide-eyed and wondering out loud, or wide-eyed and transfixed. “Ten thousand invisible Daleks! That’s ten thousand times the original problem!”

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