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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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Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part six)

In the fall of 1967, just a few weeks before “The Ice Warriors” was shown, there was another, more famous bit of television drama about a computer going bananas when confronted with an insoluble problem. It was “The General,” an episode of Patrick McGoohan’s ITC series The Prisoner, which ends with a supercomputer short-circuiting when asked “Why?” And here, the computer that runs the base, and which Peter Barkworth and Wendy Gifford’s characters practically worship, “goes mad” and shakes side to side because it can’t decide between two risky alternatives, either of which could end in its destruction. So it takes Peter Sallis, who’s been representing humanity’s impulsive and true side, to make the decision.

I’m not sure what was in the air in the UK in 1967, but some TV people sure were leery of computers then.

This is a really good finale. Obviously the emotional core is having Peter Sallis save the day by being practical and human, but there’s plenty of great acting throughout. The standoff between Peter Barkworth and Bernard Bresslaw’s Varga is an extremely watchable and quite long scene, with plenty for both actors to sink their teeth into. Sallis is just awesome, identifying the problem from outside the room and immediately finding a way to wage guerrilla warfare against the Ice Warriors. It’s true that the Doctor’s companions get pretty sidelined in the climax – and really, throughout this adventure overall – because the focus is all on the big-name guest stars, but this really was a fun serial, incredibly entertaining throughout.

Our son was really confused, however, by the destruction of the Warriors’ spaceship, which happens offscreen. Not even a miniature set, much less a big boom of a sound effect for the actors to hear and comment upon. Other than that, he really liked this story and can’t wait for the Doctor’s next adventure, which we will watch after Christmas. I told him that it is called “The Enemy of the World,” and he was a little aggravated with me that I wouldn’t tell him the enemy of the world’s name.

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Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part five)

I wasn’t sure what to write about this episode at first. I suppose the obvious thing would be to switch gears and talk about how the slow-moving plot of the squabbling humans is such a fascinating character drama, and how the estranged former colleagues played by Peter Sallis and Peter Barkworth finally meeting and confronting their old wounds is actually more of an emotional core to this story than anything with seven foot-tall aliens. But then something adorable happened.

I almost always write these posts right after we finish watching a program together, even if I occasionally compose some rough notes for the more detail-packed stories ahead of time. But this evening, Marie’s aunt Victoria is in town and we only had time to watch the episode before going to meet her and have dinner. When we came home, our son first showed our guests his Mixels and his Legos – because those are the most important things in the world, of course – and then he showed off both the Dalek that lives on one of my shelves, and all of the original series DVDs. (There really are an excessive number of them; a collection of original series Who takes up a stupid amount of space.)

This was quite a sight to see. We’re only on his third story, and he was talking enthusiastically about Daleks and Ice Warriors and the TARDIS and reenacting the cliffhanger to part two of “Power,” croaking “I AM YOUR SER-VANT!” in his little Dalek voice. Not quite Peter Hawkins, but close enough.

It really was the cutest darn thing ever. Children are always Doctor Who’s biggest fans.

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Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part four)

We asked our favorite five year-old critic what he thought of the Martian villains in this story. He said “The Ice Warriors are the meanest enemies in Doctor Who I ever saw! They’re even meaner than the Daleks and the Cybermen.” Then he spread his arms as wide as he could and said “They’re THIS mean!”

His is probably not a majority opinion, but there is a downright nasty and cruel streak to Varga and Zondal, the two villains with speaking parts, which he hasn’t really seen before, and which the Ice Warriors of later stories wouldn’t display. This was a huge and pleasant surprise to me when I finally saw this story.

The surviving episodes of “The Ice Warriors” were recovered in 1988, by which time I’d seen the other three stories with these aliens from their airings on American PBS stations. I was familiar with how the actors Alan Bennion and Sonny Caldinez moved and spoke as the Martians in those serials. Weirdly, though, these earliest episodes didn’t soon find their way into the VHS tape trading circles that I knew, and we had to wait for somebody to buy the British PAL VHS from Forbidden Planet mail order or something when it was commercially released, and take it to a video production and editing company in Roswell to make second-gen dubs in the North American NTSC format.

Here’s what surprised me the most about “The Ice Warriors”: Bernard Bresslaw, who plays Varga, moves like a reptile. It’s a really fun performance. Bresslaw, who stood 6’7″, was very much a casting coup for the story. He was best known for his many comic roles, principally – when this was made – among the ensemble cast of the venerable sitcom The Army Game. In the years before he taped “The Ice Warriors,” he had joined the cast of the Carry On films for the first two of what would be fourteen appearances in those movies. He was hilarious in a Goodies that isn’t on DVD, and unfortunately kind of awful in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.

So what’s a tall comedian doing playing a sadistic alien in a crocodile suit? Well, like most actors, he wanted to take some parts that expanded his range, and was interested when his agent said there was a part in Doctor Who for a tall prehistoric warrior frozen in the ice. The script for part one, referring to Varga’s helmet, compares it to a Viking’s. Apparently he had no idea he was going to be playing a reptile when he accepted the part. Still, all credit to him: he jumped right in with both feet. As Varga, he moves his neck and head like a snake, constantly rolling back and forth and occasionally ducking down between the shoulder blades of the big suit’s torso. He’s acting without being able to use his eyes or his mouth, but it’s just so darn fun to watch him and Roger Jones, who plays Zondal, moving like a couple of sinister snakes.

Overall, my impression from the later three serials were the Ice Warriors are a case of a design triumph failing to really thrill onscreen. Ice Warriors look great, but they’re just lumbering and slow, like a lot of Doctor Who monsters. In this first story, though, they’re lumbering and fast, and that is much more fun.

And mean, of course. Mustn’t forget that.

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