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Doctor Who: Frontios (parts three and four)

Well, how nice. There’s a scene with Janet Fielding in her awesomely eighties outfit and one of the big bug monsters. Saves me the trouble of taking two pictures.

From the perspective of watching TV with my kid, the most interesting surprise about “Frontios” is that he was much more frightened by it than I was expecting. There’s a grisly body horror aspect to the story – it’s really driven home in writer Christopher H. Bidmead’s novelization of the script for Target Books’ line, which is downright disgusting – which centers around the bug monsters’ excavation machine. They need living humanoid minds to run the thing, and so the cliffhanger to part three reveals that a character everybody thought was dead is still hanging on, zombie-like, inside the machine. Our son volunteered that this was the scariest adventure since “Pyramids of Mars”, which remains his benchmark for scary Doctor Who.

From my own perspective, there’s a surprising revelation that the most intelligent bug monster, the one who controls all the others, is surprisingly well-read for bug monsters. He knows about Gallifrey and TARDISes, but he also specifically has heard of the Doctor. This may be one of the first occasions in the show where our hero’s reputation has preceded him quite this much. You can imagine Young Steven Moffat jumping at what a great idea it is that the Doctor’s such a big-shot legend.

It’s established that the Tractators are very long-lived specifically, and we can infer that their species has been around, digging up planets, for many millions of years, since Turlough’s home planet was once infested with them, and this story is set so far in the future that the Time Lords forbid TARDISes from going any farther. Perhaps the rank-and-file digger bugs just shuffle about in their tunnels while the bright one goes out, reads the papers, and stays abreast of cosmic events. He talks a lot, in his awesomely eighties electronic-synthesizer voice, so maybe he’s been gossiping with all the villains from all the other set-so-far-in-the-future stories about who beat ’em.

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Doctor Who: Frontios (parts one and two)

“Frontios” is the story with the big ugly monsters that look like wood lice. We may get a clear shot of them for the picture in tomorrow’s post. Our son was doing an admirable job being quite surprisingly freaked out and bothered by what’s happening on the far distant colony planet in this story, so I turned to look at him as the beasts are revealed. You know that scene in so many science fiction movies where the heroes wander right past the pile of rocks that turn out to be a walking rock monster as soon as their backs are turned? Well, that happens here, as two of these big insects helpfully hide their faces against a wall leaving their shells facing toward Mark Strickson and one of this story’s co-stars. The humans leave the frame, and the big bugs turn around and follow them.

I was expecting a gasp, or a cry, or the shielding of our son’s trusty security blanket. Instead he went “Bleugh!” and didn’t stop with the “yucks” until several minutes after the show. “This is terrible! Those Tractator things are disgusting!” Oh, to be seven again!

“Frontios” is… okay. It’s another one of those stories where the running time would be halved if the besieged good guys would just accept the Doctor’s help instead of thinking he’s the villain. This is often a bore, but never more so than here, when in order for the Doctor to be the villain, he’d have to had started bombarding this colony with meteorites literally three decades previously. I mean, at some point in the last thirty years, the theory that the meteorites are just a softening-up technique before the invasion would have gone back on the shelf.

The besieged people are all stupid and unsympathetic, and guest star Peter Gilmore is stuck playing the far-future version of some dumb general like Thunderbolt Ross. Writer Christopher H. Bidmead came up with an interesting scenario and it’s nice to see the Doctor dig around and investigate things, but he really wants to leave this planet as soon as possible, and who can blame him?

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy rereading Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s About Time series of Who guidebooks, well, the first six of them anyway, and I give each story a preview look in their books to remind myself what to watch for. That’s especially important with “Frontios,” which I’ve always remembered as a middling-to-mediocre story that doesn’t hold my interest. I was surprised to read that both writers are extremely complimentary toward this adventure and hail it as a really unique and original story. Two episodes in, and honestly the most memorable things about it, in no particular order, are the Doctor’s “brainy specs,” Janet Fielding’s leather miniskirt, and the silly bug-monster costumes. Then I read a little further and the authors went on to make the quite mad claim that Doug McClure wasn’t in Warlords of Atlantis with Peter Gilmore, when he most emphatically was. Writers! Never trust ’em!

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts three and four)

So here we see Anthony Ainley made up as “the Portreeve,” an old, learned man in the strange city of Castrovalva. The disguise worked. I paused in the end credits for part three, where Ainley is credited as “Neil Toynay,” and asked Marie whether she recognized the actor, and she didn’t. “So who is he?” our son asked. “Mom and I saw him the other night in Out of the Unknown,” I said, attempting one more clue. Unknown was a BBC anthology series that started as adaptations of proper, pipe-smoking sci-fi that evolved into original works of psychological horror and the supernatural by the end. What survived the BBC’s wiping is incredibly uneven and occasionally terrible, but almost always interesting to watch. My favorite is the 1966 adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” which is just eye-poppingly amazing. Ainley was the star of a 1971 story called “Welcome Home” which she and I watched Wednesday night. It is almost oppressively creepy, and he’s excellent in it.

So bravo to Ainley, the makeup team, and director Fiona Cumming for pulling it off. When he reveals himself to be the Master in part four, only one of the three people in this audience saw it coming. I honestly don’t remember whether I saw through the disguise when I first saw this in late 1984. I probably didn’t.

Castrovalva is a city on the top of a steep, rocky hill on a quiet and calm wooded planet that made us all want to hike and climb the rocks there. The city is populated by incredibly likable and kind people, one of them played by the fine character actor Michael Sheard, and the Doctor evidently hasn’t paid enough attention to 20th Century popular culture, because he doesn’t spot that the city is built like an MC Escher print, with all the staircases leading to the same place and sometimes upside down.

I’ve noted this little hole in the Doctor’s knowledge before, back when we learned that the Master is a King Crimson fan. I’ll tell you what was going on during the Third Doctor’s exile. He was taking Jo to the National Gallery, name-dropping all the artists he’s known, and telling ribald stories about Titian. Meanwhile, the Master was hanging out in record stores and head shops, seeing what pipe-smoking sci-fi readers were framing on their living room walls, and sneering about snobs who use words like “ribald.”

Our son was very pleased with this story, which was nice, because he’s been more patient than engaged with the last few things we’ve watched together. “I really liked this one,” he told us, singling out the part where one of the Castrovalvan people saves the day by swinging from a chandelier into the Master’s infernal machine. The Master shouts “My web!” when it happens, which is slightly comical. Then he tries to escape in his TARDIS, finds that he can’t use it to get out of the collapsing, recursive geography of Castrovalva, steps outside and bellows “My web!” again, which is more than just “slightly” comical.

So that’s it for Peter Davison’s first adventure. He makes a great team with Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, and Janet Fielding. The story is original, and certainly unlike anything we’ve seen on the show before. The dialogue’s sometimes clumsy, and Tegan must have grown up in a household full of pipe-smoking sci-fi readers, because she has accepted all of this with no confusion or complaint, but this is another very good example of what I was talking about with “The Leisure Hive” when I said that the program is trying to look and sound interesting and different. You really get the sense that everybody involved wants to make this show work.

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts one and two)

Back to January 1982 and Peter Davison’s first story in Doctor Who. Davison gets to spend the first half hour stumbling around the corridors of the TARDIS, and the second half hour asleep and being carried around in a coffin. Nobody hates “Castrovalva,” but that’s because episodes three and four are incredibly clever and fun. If the entire thing was like the first two parts, things would have been different.

Season nineteen was recorded way out of order, first so that Davison would have a chance to get a handle on his character before going back and acting all erratic and weird in this one, and second so that the people behind the scenes could nail down exactly what this story was going to be. The story that was planned for Davison’s debut wasn’t working, so the producer commissioned Christopher H. Bidmead, who had been his script editor the previous year, to come up with this. As with Bidmead’s previous story, “Logopolis”, there’s too much technobabble in the script, and poor Sarah Sutton is forced to try and make something called “telebiogenesis” sound important. The quirky concept this time around is recursion, which, again, gets fun in the second half of the story.

Still, even though these first two parts are incredibly slow, they’re just so likable. It’s actually kind of refreshing to spend a full half hour episode letting the Doctor be weird and absent-minded and spend time on the strangeness of his regeneration crisis. Later on, the indulgence of “the Doctor gets to be WACKY when he regenerates” would grate, but I like it here. And the simple, slow pace was perfect for our son, who really enjoyed this. The pacing is perfect for younger viewers, with one problem at a time and a detailed, engaging solution to each new issue. That said, he did complain that the obstacles were ensuring that absolutely nobody was getting what they wanted. He even felt sorry for the Master after his traps were foiled, because surely if the heroes were miserable, then at least the villain could have a good day!

One point of bother, pointing the way toward future irritations, though: the Doctor has three companions all of a sudden, and they all apparently read a book about the show or something, because they all know what regeneration is. It’s an ugly case of the people making the program choosing to believe that everybody watching the program is well-versed in the lore and reads the preview articles in the TV section. And while it’s incredibly laudable that Tegan has decided to stay and help this strange man through his regeneration crisis instead of waving everybody off back into outer space, the script treats her as though she’d somehow taken the Doctor Who Companion Orientation and has signed on for a season or more. Later stories would remember that Tegan’s goal was to get back to Earth in the spring of 1981 and get to her stewardess job at Heathrow Airport. It’s not mentioned even once here!

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Doctor Who: Logopolis (parts three and four)

If you scroll way, way back in this Doctor Who story, you’ll see that I once showed all of the original series to my two older kids. It took a while, because we took breaks and had “repeat seasons” and all sorts of delays. The three of us moved to our old house in the spring of 2003 and I guess that summer, my son and I watched the final few Pertwee serials while my daughter shouted at us from the staircase, interrupting as much as she dared with updates about how she’s not watching it. We “shouldn’t watch that show because it’s too scary.” Every time she did come downstairs and give it a try, an Exillon or an Ice Warrior or a giant Spider would show up and she’d run screaming.

So we took a break of a few weeks and I actually showed her a picture of Professor Kettlewell’s robot and she agreed that it wasn’t scary. So she consented to watch, or at least not interrupt us with bellowed reports about how we could watch that scary show if we wanted, but she wasn’t going to. For the most part, there was peace in the valley. As I reported in these pages, the mummies in “Pyramids of Mars” had both kids screaming and crying and sleeping in my bed, but I think that was a one-off. Tom Baker became our Doctor, just like he became everybody’s Doctor for such a long time.

We took breaks, as I say, including the big one to enjoy Christopher Eccleston’s run, and we had the repeats and other shows, and I see that it was September of 2005 that we finally got to “Logopolis.” And it devastated my children. Again, from my old journal:

The end of this serial was absolutely amazing for us to watch together, because I didn’t give the kids any warning or suggestion that this was the end for our Doctor. I think my son realized just before the end, as he took in a deep breath during a flashback scene when the Doctor remembers his last several travelling companions, and his eyes widened. That made me tear up, and when the regeneration began, we were all shocked and weeping. “He DIED?!” my daughter bellowed as the end credits started. That a new Doctor sat up wasn’t important. For a few minutes, nothing was, because our Doctor was gone.

In time, she’d get older enough to start fangirling over Tennant and Smith, and eventually join the rest of the squee brigade in turning her back on grouchy old Capaldi, which is fair, you’re supposed to grow out of Doctor Who for a while and maybe return one day down the line. Part of me thinks that’s a big reason why Capaldi’s ratings in Britain were lower anyway – all the kids whose parents plopped them in front of the TV in the spring of 2005 were nine years older. When you’ve got high school parties or records to collect or people to smooch or college entrance exams, especially the smooching part, you put away the childish things, and it was just a natural time for the audience to turn over and age out.

But Tennant and Smith were in the future. In fact, back in time, we hammered down and watched the next eight seasons and McGann’s movie in a prolonged marathon so that other than “The Christmas Invasion,” we weren’t interrupted by the past or the future in following the narrative. No, that night in September 2005, my daughter bawled her eyes out because our Doctor had died, and she spent the better part of an hour utterly inconsolable. She took it out on Peter Davison. She never warmed to him, the interloper, the usurper. She liked Colin, though. Colin yelled a lot. Nobody ever told Colin Baker to take out the trash.

There was no repeat of those tears tonight. Our son said “Huh, that’s cool,” and wanted to know what that second-to-the-last monster from the flashback was. He wasn’t even a little bit sad. He’s been wondering how many other Doctors there are and when we’re going to get to them. Time marches on.

By the way, though we will be watching, I’m not going to write about Jodie Whittaker’s run at this time, simply because I just don’t want to be tied down to this silly blog and will enjoy having a break on Sundays! But the night after Jodie’s debut, we’ll look in on some old friends, and then start watching Peter Davison’s run later in October. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Logopolis (parts one and two)

“Logopolis” is a story that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. I mean, the first two parts are just the Doctor and Adric spouting technobabble and gobbledygook at each other. The introduction of Janet Fielding as the new character Tegan Jovanka gives it a little more life, but it’s the direction that makes it. It’s the first story written for the series by the season’s script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, and it’s directed by Peter Grimwade. He brings an almost unbearable feeling of doom to the production.

Here’s something I wrote in September 2005: There’s a scene in part one when the Doctor looks across the highway and sees a spectral white figure by a fence staring at him and he almost collapses in shock. It works as well as it does because nobody in either the story or in the audience knows who the figure is, except the Doctor. Watching the story as a repeat from that angle reveals so much about the Doctor’s character and his actions over the next hour or so.

This is especially true in the second episode, where the Doctor confronts the figure, but too far away for Adric, or the audience, to know what they’re saying. But Tom Baker’s body language on that bridge… “I don’t want to go” never broke my heart the way that Baker’s silent, distant, slumped shoulders do.

That white figure really drives what’s going on in this story. (Well, the figure and the music, which is probably from start to finish the most memorable soundtrack ever performed for any Doctor Who adventure.) Nyssa, who we met in the previous story, shows up on an alien planet where the Doctor has gone, and tells Adric that “a friend of the Doctor’s” brought her. Then we see the strange all-white man slip slowly across the screen. Our son thinks that he’s another Time Lord. Good guess. I probably like the answer more than some people do.

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