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Doctor Who: The Curse of Peladon (part four)

Happily, the frighteners that the monsters put on our son over the last two sessions wore off for the all-action finale of this story. He really enjoyed the sword fight, which features about a dozen men. It’s honestly not shot particularly well – though in fairness, it must be amazingly difficult to choreograph so many people in a three-camera studio videotape situation – but the action is pretty impressive.

Perhaps less impressive, from his perspective, is the mushiness between Jo and King Peladon, the first of a few fellows that Jo meets on her travels to get her heart a-flutter. Katy Manning and David Troughton have a very nice chemistry together, and I really enjoy her performance as the king tries to persuade her to stay with him. The best little scene, however, is when the two Ice Warriors silently menace Alpha Centauri into changing its vote, and the weird eyeball alien lowers its eye sadly and raises three of its tentacles. Pretty terrific body language for such a ridiculous and ungainly costume!

“The Curse of Peladon” is certainly a well-paced script, even if I really think that the story badly needs to actually see the court officials that it mentions in passing. Sometimes you see people moan that Doctor Who needed more money spent on it, but that’s usually from the perspective of viewers who don’t like the special effects. This is a story where I wish the budget had run to bigger sets and more speaking parts. It’s not great Who, but it’s an entertaining little adventure.

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Doctor Who: The Curse of Peladon (parts two and three)

Like a lot of classic Who, “The Curse of Peladon” aims far above its limitations. One of these is the simplicity of the sets. Sure, they look like nice corridors, and they’re actually lit well, which certainly wasn’t always the case in the videotape era, but they insist on looking like the throne room and the delegates’ conference rooms are separated by about twenty feet. A major part of the script involves Hepesh keeping knowledge about a network of subterranean tunnels and secret passages from the king. Twice, the story has the opportunity to change direction completely if King Peladon will just walk down the hall and check out the Doctor’s claim that there are hidden doors in the place. Frankly, everything here would make a whole heck of a lot more sense if he did that. Even if the writer, Brian Hayles, were to insist that the entrance is about a mile’s walk away, then the king should still want to do that. Since the designer and director don’t convince me that the entrance isn’t as far away as the man’s own bedroom, it’s even more ridiculous.

The other thing is with the aliens. Now, if you’re six, all these weird beasties are unbelievably effective. Our son has told us that this is one of the scariest Doctor Who stories ever, because it’s not only got a hairy monster who lives under the citadel, but all these freaky alien delegates: the Ice Warriors, Alpha Centauri, and Arcturus. From modern eyes, the delegates are all remarkably garish and plastic, colored in bright Sherwin-Williams green and yellow. About Time contrasts their artificial green with the deep blues and purples of the Peladonian court clothes and calls the result, not unreasonably, “glam rock.” Like “The Claws of Axos” the year before, this is television for British viewers in 1972 who’ve bought their first color television set and want to see something they’ve never seen before. Everything here looks like Roy Wood and Mott the Hoople on Top of the Pops, and the next story is going to look comparatively restrained, but it will sound like Roxy Music’s first album.

I said above that the corridors are lit well, but the monsters aren’t. Arcturus’s tank has a big reflective surface behind his wet globe which shows blue-white strobes from the lights, as does the back of the Ice Warrior’s shell, emphasizing the materials and the paint used to construct it in a spotlight. The result from modern grownup eyes is a constant punch in the ol’ suspension of disbelief gene. (Similarly, there’s a story in season fourteen set in a primitive hut without electricity and I just can’t stop staring at the studio lights reflecting off one actor’s bald head.) But the grownups in 1972 who’d made the investment in a color set had never seen anything like this before, and apparently found the visuals incredibly compelling. And the kids in the audience, once they’d peeked out from behind the sofa to see the Doctor scratching the hairy monster behind the ears, they’re every bit as convinced.

Gah. I like this story, honestly I do, but when the Doctor’s telling the king and Hepesh that he’s been scratching the royal monster behind the ears and Hepesh is yelling “Sacrilege,” any intelligent king would turn to his high priest and say “We are amazed that you, of all people, do not wish to verify this remarkable claim. We would see this supposed animal and these caves for ourselves. Lead the way, Doctor.”

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Doctor Who: The Curse of Peladon (part one)

The United Kingdom joined what was then called the Common Market in 1973, and there were many years of debate in that nation as to whether it should. While not formally a satire or a pastiche of this event, the politics of the day certainly formed some of the background behind Brian Hayles’ first story about the feudal planet Peladon as it is considered for membership in a Galactic Federation.

Part one of the story, the first of four Who serials directed by Lennie Mayne, is a little heavy with court intrigue and political squabbling, and so we paused the action, such as it was, to give our son a little recap. King Peladon, played by David Troughton (Patrick’s son), is ready to move his primitive planet forward into the Federation, and his superstitious high priest Hepesh is opposed. Hepesh is played by square-jawed Geoffrey Toone, who may have been familiar to audiences from playing numerous upper class and military villains, perhaps most notably as the regular villain Von Gelb in the first three series of Freewheelers, so all eyes are on him here to be up to no good.

But Toone is quickly overshadowed by the arrival of a couple of Ice Warriors, who were last seen on Who three years previously. As part of our story-so-far, I pointed out that the Federation’s assessment group contains four members: Alpha Centauri, Arcturus, the delegate from Earth who has not yet arrived, and one we have not met yet. Then a big Martian lumbered into frame. “We HAVE met them,” he yelled. “It’s an Ice Warrior! A GREEN Ice Warrior!” I asked him later what color that he thought they were, if not green. “White and black,” he answered, reasonably.

But Troughton, Toone, and the Warriors are all overshadowed by Katy Manning, who completely steals the show. Dressed for a night out on the town with Captain Yates, she’s wearing what appears to be something from the 1974 Sears Christmas Wish Book, but Jo immediately understands the problem of sexism in the Peladon throne room and promptly improvises the persona of Princess Josephine of TARDIS so that she can be presented to “our royal host.” There’s never been a way around it: Jo is undeniably a retrograde step down from her more progressive antecedent companions Zoe and Liz, but would Liz Shaw have been at all believable pretending to be a princess to avoid a royal scandal?

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part six)

Our son is mostly – mostly – very well-behaved when we watch TV together. We think it’s very important to teach him the manners of being quiet and still while watching something with other people. Later today, I’m taking him to see The Lego Batman Movie. He’s been to the theater twice before, but I learned from experience with my older kids that it’s a constant process, to be quiet and respect other people in the audience, and you constantly, constantly have to reinforce it.

But the reality is that he’s five and that some grumbling is simply going to happen. Once in a while, it’s pretty funny. Today, he got very worried as the Ice Warriors seemed to regain the upper hand and take the Doctor prisoner. And he let us know “If the Ice Warriors win, I’m not going to watch Doctor Who again. For a month!” When the Doctor’s plan worked, and he and Jamie tackle the remaining enemies, he was thrilled, and yelled “THAT! WAS! AWESOME!” I guess we won’t have to wait until April to see what happens next.

One major bone of contention, however, came with the Ice Warriors’ heavy breathing. The sound of their asthmatic hissing really aggravated both Mommy and our son. The head villain, Slaar, rasping and gasping, reports to a grand marshal on a video-link in his invasion flagship. The marshal speaks without any breathing problems. In fact, he speaks in the dulcet tones of somebody more accustomed to delivering lines about slings, arrows, and outrageous fortunes than about retro-active rockets and orbits around the sun. Fans have suggested that the marshal, in an atmosphere mix that Ice Warriors can breathe without issue, didn’t need to hack and cough and hiss like Slaar and the grunts. But geez, couldn’t the guy have made a little effort to sound more like an alien menace than a town crier?

Unfortunately, the next serial, “The Space Pirates,” is mostly missing, without any of the telesnaps that almost all of the lost Doctor Who stories have. The man who shot these photos, John Cura, had stopped taking the snaps due to illness, and passed away in April 1969. This slot was given to Robert Holmes to write after two other planned serials fell through. It was script-edited by Derrick Sherwin again, while Terrance Dicks, who had worked on “Seeds” and the previous two stories, worked ahead on the season’s final ten episodes.

Meanwhile, producer Peter Bryant was preparing to leave Who for something a little more prestigious, and in color, as the BBC began phasing out black and white broadcasts. This would be Paul Temple, a detective series that would become very important to Who‘s production as 1969 and 1970 rolled on. Derrick Sherwin planned to move up the BBC chain and become a producer himself. In March 1969, Bryant formally moved over to begin work on Temple, with “The Space Pirates” his final Who production credit. Sherwin became Who‘s producer, and the serial after that, “The War Games,” would be his first in charge. More on that in a week or so.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (parts four and five)

I decided we’d watch two episodes together, in part because part four of this serial is the traditional middle-of-the-story one where not much happens, and in part because part five ends with a terrific cliffhanger. Part four was rewritten to give Patrick Troughton seven days’ vacation. He didn’t trim his sideburns during his time off, and the hairdresser didn’t spot the difference. When the Doctor wakes up, having missed out on an episode from exposure to the Martian seed pods, his bushy sideburns are the first thing you notice.

So, at this point, the Ice Warriors have completely bypassed the Daleks as our son’s most feared alien menace. (And, looking ahead at our viewing schedule, since the Daleks weren’t in the series at this time, it’ll be several months before they have a chance to retake the lead!) This was a real behind the sofa, eat the blanket, crawl on Mommy’s lap experience. When Jamie and Zoe realize too late that they’ve trapped themselves in a building with one, he very nearly broke into tears he was so worried. Troughton saved the day by getting stuck outside yelling “oh no” and “oh dear” and making silly faces while the BBC’s foam machine dumped hundreds of gallons of soap and stuff on him. It’s precisely the clowning comedy that was needed to break the tension.

I like how this is pitched so perfectly at children. There’s plenty for the grownups to appreciate – the script’s pretty good, the direction’s great, the Ice Warriors are sadistic and brutal, Louise Pajo and Ronald Leigh-Hunt are terrific – and also to smile about the inescapable BBC-ness of it all. The actor Hugh Morton shows up for no other reason than the writers decided that what this show really needed was another middle-aged man in space pajamas to talk about full inquiries and closed-door meetings about food shortages.

But for kids, especially the ones with beginners’ chemistry sets, this has bits of foam under the microscope and talk about oxygen and splashing acids on balloons looking for the way to stop the fungus. (It’s water. Really. Water.) The set designer was evidently watching Batman, and gave the thermostat on the moonbase a whacking great steering wheel on the wall to raise the temperature, and the weather control station is a gigantic complex whose critical piece of equipment is a small box with four levers, all of which the Ice Warrior can fix in the “DRY” position to stop it raining. It’s like that because this is a show for all audiences. It’s there for our five year-old to figure out, when he’s not hiding in terror.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part three)

The original run of Doctor Who was a case where there was a lot of received wisdom and orthodoxy about the show’s past because, due to the BBC’s policies against repeats, so little of it was able to be seen in the seventies and eighties when fandom started organizing and writing articles and features and getting magazines and books published. This wasn’t a case like Star Trek, to use an obvious example, where the show was in constant rotation everywhere and was released on home video not long after VHS tapes were on every shelf.

This was a time when only five of Patrick Troughton’s 21 serials existed in full. There was no binge-watching then, and no jumping-on point. For many years, only two of those five were in any way available to most British viewers: “The Krotons,” which the BBC repeated in 1981, and “The Seeds of Death,” which was among the first stories to be released on home video in 1985. These two stories explain why the second Doctor got the reputation – reinforced by “The Three Doctors” – as “the clown.”

These are the stories with all the “Great jumping gobstoppers” and “Oh my giddy aunt” lines, and, of course, this episode has the famous showpiece in which Troughton runs and flails and throws his hands up and makes silly faces while some Ice Warriors lumber around the moonbase chasing him. “You’ve got no orders to kill me. Your leader will want to speak to me,” the Doctor says. “Your leader will be angry if you kill me. I’m a genius!”

Eventually, the other three stories became more readily available, and the orphaned episodes from incomplete serials became more widespread, and, best of all, about another eighteen episodes were recovered and returned. Everybody’s now got a much better picture of Troughton being able and willing to take things deadly seriously, but there’s still a sense of that reputation lingering. The chase in this episode is a comedy aside, a chance for the actor to do something silly and fun in a story much more lighthearted and child-friendly than, say, “The Macra Terror” or “The Enemy of the World.” It’s an adorable diversion, but it never should have defined the second Doctor in the way it did.

But let me tell you: this diversion was timed absolutely perfectly. This episode scared the pants off our son and boy, did he ever need the Doctor to clown around and take the edge off. The two principal Ice Warriors in their original serial were so sadistic and mean, and even though these guys are, by comparison, character-free grunts who just look neat, they just freaking shoot down everybody who isn’t obeying orders. He is seriously worried about everybody other than the Doctor. He loses consciousness after having a Martian seed pod blow up in his face, so all the other characters are sitting ducks in his eyes. He enjoyed the comedy runaround, but things fell apart again. “That was so creepy,” he grumbled, clarifying that he does not mean fun creepy, but “scary creepy.”

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part two)

Egad, it’s even worse than I remembered. They get this rocket fueled and our heroes briefed in maybe a couple of hours. There’s no sense of time at all. Director Michael Ferguson brings a lot of visual flair to this story, but he can’t salvage this for adult viewers. I can more easily believe a machine traveling in time and space than this rocket getting launched so quickly. That’s doubly true since they spent almost as much screen time on two old men yelling back and forth about whether it can be done. The lying old coot who built the rocket could have just said “It’s actually been completely ready for months. I run a four-hour diagnostic systems check every day. We just need to program the navigation. Let’s get this show on the road!”

But then again, I’m not the target audience. This went over extremely well with our son, who was literally hopping with excitement during the countdown. And he lives in a world without any real media attention paid to rockets. Imagine the kids of 1969, when Apollo launches were television events, watching this. We’ve seen glimpses of this past when we watch the original Thunderbirds, and see how in that show’s 2066, worldwide TV audiences tuned in for hours in the buildup to Sun Probe or Zero-X taking off. At this point, the Ice Warriors are secondary to the story. This is about a rocket to the moon, four months before we landed there.

The thrilling launch was bookended by two scenes of real suspense and terror as an Ice Warrior searches the moonbase for a technician who is hiding in a storeroom building weapons and a radio to call Earth. This had his teeth on edge and a blanket held high for safety. It’s not that he was necessarily concerned for that guy’s welfare; it’s just that he knows how mean Ice Warriors are.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part one)

Back to Doctor Who and a six-part serial called “The Seeds of Death” that was originally shown from January to March 1969. Compared to the rest of this troubled season, “Seeds” was a pain in the neck but possibly the least problematic of the year’s seven stories. They’d always planned for Brian Hayles to write another six-part story with the Ice Warriors this year because the costumes had been so expensive. Nailing what that story would be took a while, and in the end, Terrance Dicks ended up writing most of the serial himself without a screen credit.

It seems to be set some years after Zoe’s time of 2068, during a brief period where Earth is no longer exploring space, but sinking funds into improving a transmat system that ships food and cargo around the planet, and which is controlled from the moon. A lot of this is going to get sped up, sacrificing the suspension of disbelief for drama. The Ice Warriors take over the moonbase, and in almost no time at all, the entire planet is panicking and rioting for a lack of food, and, in part two, they will compact the weeks it would take to get a prototype rocket ready for launch into twenty minutes of screen time and maybe the better part of the afternoon in TV-time. It’s also badly dated by its views of the future. Nobody thinks in terms of reusable travel in space, but the rockets of the Apollo program. Apollo 9 was launched just two days after this serial concluded; the actual landing on the moon would come in four months’ time.

The serial is directed by Michael Ferguson, who had helmed “The War Machines” in 1966 and would direct another serial in each of the next two seasons. Guest stars include Harry Towb, making the first of two Who appearances where his character would meet a grisly death in the first episode of the adventure, along with Louise Pajo and Ronald Leigh-Hunt.

Our son was not completely thrilled with this one. The revelation that there are Ice Warriors on the moon was met with much discussion of the Warriors’ square eyes and scaly skin, but this does have an awful lot of people talking about complex problems, and old men being fuddy-duddies. It will improve, and I think he’ll enjoy it more, especially when we get some more opportunities for Patrick Troughton to run around, be a genius, and hide from waves of foam.

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