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Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive (parts three and four)

The production team that had been working on Doctor Who in the late seventies, Graham Williams and Douglas Adams, had made mostly entertaining adventure stories that occasionally mentioned science as part of their narrative, but they were never really about science in the way that “The Leisure Hive” is. Unfortunately, it’s true that all this talk of tachyons doesn’t make a great deal of sense the way it’s depicted here, but it’s part of how the new team, John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead, wanted to approach the show.

So there are trappings of what we expect from Doctor Who, especially the revelation of a monster in an unconvincing costume. These guys with the breathtakingly obvious collars around their necks are called Foamasi, but, like the next several non-humanoid alien races we will meet, they aren’t an all-out evil bunch like yer classic Daleks or Zygons. There are four Foamasi in this story: two cops and two mobsters trying to shake down a city-sized science museum. Foamasi is an anagram of mafiosa, you see. There will be lots of anagrams in the years ahead, often in the cast list.

But the actual villain of the story is a misguided dreamer who schemes to misuse the science of tachyonics to “clone” his dying race by building copies of them that something something faster than light the original. Like I said, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but the villain isn’t quite your typical “I will conquer everything” Doctor Who baddie, either. We’ll see plenty more megalomaniacs and despots in stories to come, but once this character is de-aged into a baby, Adrienne Corri’s character flat out says that she hopes they can raise him right this time around, which is a pretty strong indication that the series wants to try new things.

Pangol isn’t evil in the traditional sense, and neither are some of the other antagonists in stories to come, even though some will do some awful and evil things. There should be more to this show than either the latest unconvincing costume of the monster of the month, or the latest guest star playing a pantomime villain of the month, and season eighteen really tries to come up with new types of foes for the Doctor to fight. So while “The Leisure Hive” is certainly flawed and odd, it really does succeed in being very new and different.

Unfortunately, while the cliffhangers to the first two episodes were both very successful in thrilling our son, part three’s finale just left him confused. The Foamasi are big, fat reptiles which can contort and suck in their bodies to wear human skin suits, much like the Slitheen would do twenty-five years later. It’s almost as though 2005’s Doctor Who episodes were written by fans who read the novelisations of old stories where these points were explained in greater detail than were shown onscreen and debated their effectiveness in fanzines and usenet or something. Hmmmm.

Anyway, so the cliffhanger shows the two police Foamasi, who communicate in a clicking, chirping language that even the Time Lords cannot understand, descending on two human characters, ripping off their skin suits and revealing them to be more Foamasi. Our son had no idea what was happening. He had forgotten the discovery of a skin suit in part two, and thought that the Foamasi had the hideous power of turning people into more reptiles like them. It’s almost a shame that’s not what actually happened, because that would have been a pretty grisly little plot development!

Overall he enjoyed the story. So do I. It isn’t a favorite, but it’s interesting and kind of a shame that the writer and director tasked with bringing the show’s new vision to life were never asked back. The writer, David Fisher, seems to have been passed over in the constant search for new blood, and the director, Lovett Bickford, ignored his budget and overspent so much that he wouldn’t be used again. Getting new talent is always a good and important idea, but as we’ll see next time, there’s something to be said for experienced scriptwriters.

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Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive (parts one and two)

Unless you are Indiana Jones, R.E.M. or Echo & the Bunnymen, the eighties were not your best decade. So it is with Doctor Who, whose final nine seasons were overseen by one producer, the late John Nathan-Turner. As we’ll see, in time the producer would become the most divisive figure in the program’s history, but I’m in the school that believes that he certainly started out very well.

The 1980-81 season really was a visual shakeup and it sounded incredibly different, too. Nathan-Turner let the show’s longtime main composer Dudley Simpson know that he was going to pass on his services and use new musicians. He and his first script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, accomplished what Douglas Adams couldn’t and found a pile of new writers. Only one person who had ever directed a Who serial before 1980 was invited back, and only three writers returned. Better still, the directors and designers seemed to be working from the same page at last, and they regularly created alien worlds that felt like they had a space and a believable existence beyond the locations where the plot sends our heroes.

The pantomime-style villains who’d dominated the Graham Williams run were mostly gone, and the Doctor stopped being an all-powerful know-it-all. Tom Baker’s overacting was toned down, and even K9 sounds less smug about everything. So seasons 18 and 19 did look and sound like a new and refreshed program, with some good stories and some that didn’t work so well. I think there are a couple of serials that should have been dumped at the script stage, but until we get to the tail end of Peter Davison’s first year (specifically a story called “Time-Flight” where practically every decision anybody made was the wrong one), even the misfires at least looked and sounded interesting. There’s a real sense that everyone working on the show wants to create engaging television that doesn’t follow a very obvious path.

With that in mind, David Fisher’s “The Leisure Hive,” which was the last serial that he’d contribute to the show, is incredibly interesting. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it compelling. The story suffers – at the script level – from some of the same old problems that plague all of television, especially when the speaking parts are so rationed that a lawyer from Earth suddenly becomes a prosecutor on an alien planet. But it looks and sounds so radically different from anything that Doctor Who had ever done, with surprising camera angles, closeups, and especially the lighting choices, that it’s more engaging on a visual level than the show almost ever was. Add a very modern synthesizer score by Peter Howell and it all adds up to something that is admittedly dated, but in 1980, it must have seemed incredibly refreshing.

It’s the only serial that was directed by Lovett Bickford, who passed away just a couple of months ago. Apparently he overspent so badly that he was never invited back, which is a shame. The main guest star is actress Adrienne Corri, who had done the usual run of guest parts in the fun ITC shows of the sixties and seventies but is best known for her small but memorable role in A Clockwork Orange. Laurence Payne, who had played Sexton Blake in a long-running late sixties show for Thames that is almost entirely missing from the archives, has a small part in episode one.

“The Leisure Hive” is famous for its first two cliffhangers, which first show an image of the Doctor being torn, bloodlessly, limb from limb, and secondly see him aged into an old man. I’m pleased to report that both of these moments succeeded in startling our son, and in fact he chose to hide behind the sofa instead of seeing the freaky sight of the Doctor’s arms and head popping away from his body. In the cold light of adulthood, it’s a dopey effect, but boy, was it ever effective!

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Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit (parts three and four)

Last night, before we learned that the gigantic green blob in the pit was an imprisoned alien ambassador and thought it was a hideous monster, our son suggested that once K9 zapped the creature they could use its body for a bouncy house. His mother had a simpler observation: “They thought a scrotum monster was a good idea?”

It’s certainly true that when Doctor Who‘s special effects hit this kind of rock bottom, they overwhelm any and all possible other topics of conversation. But I will say that if you can either ignore or just laugh about this amazing lapse of judgement, taste, and common sense, this story really has lots of very funny moments as well as Geoffrey Bayldon being incredibly entertaining. I laughed out loud several times, at the right moments. I spent most of the eighties pretending that 74,384,338 was my lucky number as well. Our son enjoyed this one, too. It was neither creepy nor scary, he confirms. It’s just a simple, straightforward adventure with nothing truly horrifying. Perhaps one day he’ll revisit the earlier Tom Baker adventures that frightened the life out of him, but he’s clearly much happier with this end of the shock scale.

The story also has Myra Frances going deep in search of the most ridiculous pantomime villain trophy and she’s kind of awful to watch as she sneers and snarls, but in fairness to the actress, when the script includes such bad guy chestnuts as “Have a care, Doctor!” then it’s kind of hard for any performer to be subtle. Francis is about to have some real competition in this category. Lewis Fiander and Graham Crowden are right around the corner. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit (parts one and two)

I’ll tell you how to make sure the seven year-olds in the audience boo and hiss your villainy. Slap Romana in the face and order your guards to break K9 down into scrap. We’re watching the much-maligned “The Creature From the Pit,” written by David Fisher and directed by Christopher Barry, and the main bad guy is a Snidely Whiplash type called Lady Adrasta, played by Myra Frances. She’s a pure pantomime villain, one of many reasons this story isn’t very highly regarded, and our son just loathes her. Team her up with Count Grendel from “The Androids of Tara” and I’m not sure which of them will nya-ha-ha-ha! the loudest.

No, among the DR WHO IS SRS BSNSS crowd, “Creature” is one of those stories that makes people spit fire because they hate it so much. A big problem is the creature itself – more about that next time – but Adrasta’s comedy villainy doesn’t help, and a gang of very stupid bandits really is the limit. I’ve read people grumble that the bandits are played for laughs but they aren’t funny. No, they’re played for laughs among seven year-olds, which makes them very funny to that audience, although not really anybody older than that. Add in Tom Baker looking like he’s having a great time being silly and having fun at the expense of the drama, and some very Douglas Adams comedy about the Doctor reading Beatrix Potter and teaching himself Tibetan and you’ve got a story that isn’t serious in the slightest, but it’s mostly very fun to watch.

Helping matters: down in the pit eking out a meager existence while hiding from the mysterious creature, it’s our old pal Geoffrey Bayldon in the role of an astrologer who got on the villain’s bad side some time previously. It took a gentle prod, but our son did recognize who Bayldon was. “…Catweazle?” he asked, and I cheered inside. Marie’s pretty lousy recognizing actors as well. “Even I knew who that was,” she smiled.

This leads me to a fingers crossed moment. “The Creature From the Pit” was taped shortly after the first series of Worzel Gummidge was made. Bayldon co-starred with Jon Pertwee in this completely wonderful and anarchic comedy. The show has been released on DVD, but I’ve never read a good word about the quality of the film prints, so I decided against buying it, hoping against hope that the show might be restored and rereleased before our son gets too old to care. (The beat-up old VHS boots I had in the mid-nineties were bad enough!) Well, last week, we got a hesitant step toward that pipe dream: a complete set of negatives for all thirty of the British-made episodes was discovered. We’re hoping for more information soon!

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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts three and four)

The great big question, of course, is not whether the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan will save all of human history by defeating Scaroth on the shores of primeval Earth four hundred million years ago, but whether our son would come to his senses and enjoy this story. Happily, he did, and even conceded that the first half was also pretty exciting. Of course he enjoyed Duggan. Heroes in Doctor Who who just want to punch and thump their way through the narrative are pretty rare, so Duggan’s fists-first approach resulted in a few giggles. When Duggan observes “That’s a spaceship!” in part four, how could you not just love the guy?

But our son is also very clear that Scaroth is, somehow, one of the creepiest and scariest of all Who monsters. “He’s just got one eye, and no nose, and no mouth,” he told me with some urgency. He also loved/hated the part where Catherine Schell unrolls an old parchment to see that one of the green-skinned, one-eyed splinters of Scaroth was hanging out in ancient Egypt with Thoth and Horus and, presumably, Sutekh, and I could feel our son’s skin crawl across the sofa.

Part four also has the delightful cameo appearance of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as a pair of art snobs critiquing the TARDIS, as they’ve mistaken it for an installation in a gallery. When it dematerializes, Bron, without a note of passion in her quiet voice, calls the installation “exquisite,” having no real idea what she’s seen. I love this bit. It certainly takes you out of the story to see John Cleese making a cameo, but it’s so funny that it’s impossible to object. The whole production’s like this. If there’s a flaw anywhere, who cares.

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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts one and two)

If there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t think that “City of Death” is one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, then naturally, that little contrarian would be sitting on the sofa with us, complaining that Julian Glover is too evil a villain, and that his alien other-self is too creepy and scary. I’ve shown several people this story over the years. Trust our seven year-old to be the first and certainly the only one to grumble about it being creepy.

Never mind him. “City of Death” is a magically witty, silly, and clever story with hilarious characters and some of the most consistently funny dialogue in the history of the program. The serial has an unusual origin. It started life as “The Gamble With Time,” a four-parter written by David Fisher and set in Monte Carlo, where the Doctor and Romana teamed up with a detective meant to be a pastiche of Bulldog Drummond to investigate a mysterious count using alien technology to manipulate casinos. At the eleventh hour, with most of the serial actually cast and rehearsals set to begin, “Gamble” was finally abandoned, in part probably because nobody in 1979 still cared about Bulldog Drummond, and, over four frantic days, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams rebuilt it into “City of Death.” They rushed off to France to film everybody jogging around Paris, and everything just clicked completely.

The rest is history. Accompanied by a publicity blitz surrounding Doctor Who‘s first overseas filming, “City of Death” hit the hugest ratings in the program’s history. In part that’s because ITV was actually on strike for the first three Saturdays this aired, but part four still had an audience of more than 16 million people. It’s one of the most amazingly quotable Who stories, although our son was baffled why I burst out laughing when the Doctor tells the countess “Well, you’re a beautiful woman, probably.”

Joining Julian Glover for this wonderful romp, there’s David Graham – still the voice of Parker from Thunderbirds – along with Catherine Schell, Tom Chadbon, and Peter Halliday in a small role. You’ve got seven Mona Lisas, timeslips, Louis XV chairs, alien technology, running through Paris, and a detective who’s very anxious to “thump” anybody. Even if this was creepy and scary, which it most certainly is not, I can’t imagine not loving this completely. Ah, well, our son does tend to enjoy the second half of Who adventures more than the first, so we’ll see what tomorrow night brings!

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Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara (parts three and four)

Count Grendel isn’t exactly a subtle villain; he’s more from the Snidely Whiplash school of baddies. This makes him a phenomenally effective enemy for any seven year-olds in the audience. Our son loved to hate this guy, and named him “the most jerk in the history of people who are jerks!”

I think Peter Jeffrey knew exactly how to pitch his performance to this age group. Part three of the adventure is definitely of the “escape and run around just to get recaptured” school of Doctor Who third parts, but the big set piece is the Doctor getting out of a trap that the count has set. Four of Grendel’s guards all go down in a group when K9 zaps them, and Grendel gives this unbelievably cartoon-like reaction, and our son exploded laughing. Then in part four, Grendel ties Romana to the railroad tracks – er, I mean, schemes to force her to marry the injured king, and our son did everything but boo and hiss like the crowd at a pantomime.

So no, not very much nuance in this story, but there is a pretty good swordfight in part four, and K9 gets left adrift in a little boat, and our kid loved that, too. Since the first half of the story left him grumbling, it’s good that everything got turned around in the end.

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Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara (parts one and two)

“The Androids of Tara” is the second serial written by David Fisher – second in a row, which is pretty unusual – and the fourth story in the Key to Time adventure. It features Peter Jeffrey in a remarkably entertaining role as the absurdly nasty Count Grendel, and there’s a small part for the veteran Who guest star Cyril Shaps as a court official.

Our son is utterly lost and confused by the story, which I’d say was a simple enough story of court intrigue, deception, and identical doubles on a medieval planet, but the rules of the planet’s monarchy had him grumbling questions about why everything has to be done in this silly way. Perhaps he wasn’t in the right mood tonight; usually he just goes with the flow. Or possibly he’s impatient for space monsters. He picked out “The Power of the Daleks” to rewatch this afternoon while we were home together. I’d tell him to hang on, they’ll be back really soon, but I don’t want to spoil things.

A big reason I’m against spoilers right now of all times is because “Tara” is the story where, for me, Doctor Who stopped being this strange program that nobody in my circle knew anything about, and became something past tense that I could read about. If you scroll back through this category, you’ll see me mention the 20th Anniversary magazine several times. I know that my friend got that magazine right before WGTV showed “Tara” because on page 22, there’s a photo of Mary Tamm wearing the purple outfit you see in the picture above. Also on that page, there’s a photo of Lalla Ward. And that was the sad problem. I went from knowing nothing to knowing more than I really wanted to know.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. I was looking forward to the next two Doctors and the imminent return of the Daleks and the eventual return of the Cybermen, and Kamelion certainly looked interesting. Oh, well. Some of the magazine left me incredibly confused, though. Since I didn’t realize that we were seeing edited compilations of the serials, I just understood that Doctor Who was a 90-minute show. So I didn’t quite understand why they were making such a fuss over “The Five Doctors” being a 90-minute special, and I was blown away by the implications of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” being a twelve-episode adventure. Imagine an eighteen hour-long Doctor Who story. I sure did.

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