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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts five and six)

As if there weren’t enough reasons to love this story, in part five, the two halves of the investigation collide, and Christopher Benjamin’s motormouthed theater owner Henry Gordon Jago calls on Trevor Baxter’s very reserved and correct medical gentleman Professor George Litefoot, and the two do their utmost to steal the show right out from under the star. They are incredibly watchable together, like capturing lightning in a bottle.

There was, briefly, a proposal for the BBC to give Jago and Litefoot their own show, but it came to nothing. It finally fell to the people at Big Finish to give them a long series of audio plays that began in 2010 and only ended last year after the sad death of Trevor Baxter. There are more than fifty hour-long episodes of Jago & Litefoot available on CD and download. In a better world, we’d have had that many TV episodes in the seventies, so damn and blast those stupid people at the BBC for not making them.

I mean honestly, David Maloney went from this story into pre-production of Blake’s 7. That show’s okay, but I would gladly, gladly swap all 52 of those with the parallel universe where Jago & Litefoot was made instead.

Anyway, part five ends with a cliffhanger that had our son leaping out of his skin. Leela pulls the mask of the villain, a war criminal from three thousand years in Earth’s future called Magnus Greel, and reveals a melting, blobby mess, the result of the energy from these failed experiments in time travel causing his cells to break down. He went behind the sofa and waited right there until the recap was over. Overall, the more-complex-than-usual story and shelves full of literary allusions all conspired to make this not one of his favorite stories, but he absolutely loved the climax, and was completely delighted with the Doctor hearing the bells of a street vendor and treating all his friends to some muffins.

And with this, we come to the end of an era. With Philip Hinchcliffe moved off the show, the new producer would be Graham Williams, who will not get to enjoy the stability and continuity of a production team or actors that his predecessor had, and would be putting out fires and managing some pretty cruel budgetary restrictions before his era will come to an ignominious end with a story being canceled midstream. There are still some great stories to come, but there are also going to be far more turkeys than we’ve seen in the previous three seasons. That said, there are three or four stories coming up that I haven’t seen in many years and have mostly forgotten. I enjoyed “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster” far more than conventional wisdom suggests, so we might have some fun to come…

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll start watching season fifteen in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts three and four)

This is so good. There’s an amazing moment in part four where the Doctor attends what turns out to be Li H’sen Chang’s final stage performance. We know that Chang intends to kill the Doctor, and the Doctor’s also got a pretty shrewd idea that’s what he’s planning. Chang brandishes a pistol as part of his stage act. Earlier, we saw him load it. Is he planning to kill the Doctor in an “accident?” Just to press home the point, without blinking, the Doctor moves the target closer to his own face. You can hear a pin drop.

The whole story is just terrific. The direction, the design, and all of the performances are as good as you could get in 1977. It’s even better than I remembered it.

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts one and two)

We’ve come to the completely amazing “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” and it’s not going to be one of our son’s favorite Who stories. We took a short break between episodes to explain the cultural background to the adventure and noticed he was really, really tired. He spent the night with a buddy last night and got maybe six hours of sleep and played hard most of the day. He and I may have to watch these two parts again tomorrow afternoon, and I wouldn’t object if we do.

“Talons” is the farewell outing for director David Maloney, who had helmed many adventures in the seventies and was moving on to other jobs, and for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was being moved to other jobs. A teevee watchdog group had been giving the BBC headaches about the violence of the last season or two, hitting new heights of grievance this year, so Hinchcliffe was told that he’d be producing a new cop show called Target after this story, while the fellow who devised and developed Target, Graham Williams, would get Hinchcliffe’s job.

And so they go out with a bang, overspending massively and visibly on one of Robert Holmes’ very best scripts. “Talons” is a love letter to Victorian fiction and lore. As we explained to our son, this is not quite the real world, it’s the world of Sax Rohmer novels and Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where Jack the Ripper is on everyone’s mind, and that Giant Rat of Sumatra that Dr. Watson never could bring himself to write about is crawling around the London sewers. The Doctor dresses as Holmes and Leela is playing Eliza Doolittle.

We also explained the elephant in the room that troubles everybody who writes about “Talons” in this time: in 1977, there were enough people at the BBC to decide it would be okay for a white actor to get his eyes pulled back and made up to play Li H’Sen Chang. I don’t object to the depiction of all the Chinese characters as just part of a criminal gang; this is a story about archetypes from the idealized world of tawdry literature. Many people may love Doyle, Collins, Reginald Barrett, and all those Rivals that Hugh Greene anthologized, and many others may venerate them, but it’s tawdry literature all the same, and not the real world.

I wish that they had not cast John Bennett as Chang, just as I wish they had not cast Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in those movies he made. But they did, and the world at the time found it acceptable, and I’m not going to condemn them for it from a position of We Know Better These Days. We told our son that We Do, in fact, Know Better These Days, as we often do, and he gets that this is old TV and that a program made today would find a Chinese actor for a role like this.

Other than this disagreeable casting, the production is excellent. Leela has a lot to do and she’s incredibly amusing dropped into polite Victorian society. Christopher Benjamin is all kinds of fun as the theater owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and there’s a living ventriloquist doll who stalks around the foggy streets of London with a knife. There’s just so much to love in this story.

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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 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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Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (parts three and four)

“Planet of Evil” is definitely in that large segment of Doctor Who that starts strong and peters out. One problem is that the serial’s star is the jungle planet, and it’s largely absent from the second half, with the action set on a very boring and beige spaceship. The other problem, and I do hate picking on an actor, is the character that the unfortunate Prentis Hancock is forced to play. There are military idiots, and then there’s Commander Salamar, who doesn’t even have the decency to be written as losing his grip or even remotely sympathetic. If we felt sorry for a man in over his head, that would be one thing, but Salamar is just an incompetent jerk. Nobody could play the part well. Hancock didn’t have a prayer of making this character work.

Worse, a huge hunk of Salamar’s boneheaded military tough guy act is just there to get himself killed and pad episode four out, because this story just plain runs out of plot. Interestingly, we asked our son in between episodes what he thought, and he actually saw where this was going. There are two anti-matter beings, the big weird one on the jungle planet, and the werewolf creature that Frederick Jaeger’s character is becoming. Our son believed that Jaeger was the more frightening threat, because he was going to turn into a weird video-effects beast: “He’s going to change and be like that creature on the planet!” Thanks to Commander Salamar’s stupidity, he does, giving the story about fourteen more minutes of action.

Our son definitely had fun being frightened by this one. He told us that it was really, really, really scary. “Three scarys?” asked his mother. “No, four,” he replied. “Three isn’t enough!”

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Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (parts one and two)

As we’ve watched the last three stories, I’ve been writing about my own discovery of Doctor Who in 1984, and figuring this thing out without any help. No books, no Wikipedia, no internet, nobody else who knew what it was. “Planet of Evil” featured one of the most amazing-looking monsters that my twelve year-old eyes had ever seen. Months later, the beast broke my heart.

I mentioned that my pal Blake had been stymied from watching Doctor Who by his mother, because it was on too late on Saturday night and they went to church Sunday morning. When she did allow him to watch one, in late April 1984, she immediately changed her mind and sent him to bed when the title of the story came onscreen: “The Robots of Death.” Discouraged, Blake kept living vicariously through me and all of my reports, until he finally found a magazine all about the show.

The previous November, Britain’s Radio Times magazine had published a 20th anniversary special issue. Starlog, a then-popular magazine about sci-fi movies and media, had picked up the special for American distribution, and Blake found a copy in a convenience store that summer. Happily for him, he could show the magazine to his mother, who was persuaded by the photos of odd and/or ridiculous aliens and bug-eyed monsters that this program wasn’t some late-night introduction to Satanism, and allowed him to finally start watching the show.

But on the other hand, it allowed Blake to completely disarm two claims that I made about the show. I’ll come back to the second one when we get about halfway through season fourteen. The first one, though, was my insistence that the anti-matter monster in “Planet of Evil” was the coolest thing anybody had ever seen. The magazine printed a production photo of the creature, for some insane reason, before it got its video treatment:

Blake was perfectly happy to believe me that all of these monsters and beasts and baddies were really cool, especially the Axons and the Cybermen, but he teased me about that bedsheet monster forever. It was a long summer.

(Perhaps worse, he got the magazine a few days before WGTV showed “The Androids of Tara,” which features a very brief appearance by one of the all-time stupid Who monsters, the Taran Wood Beast. He really enjoyed the “episode” [WGTV showed the series as compilation movies], but he kept ragging me about the Wood Beast for weeks as though it was my fault it looked so fake.)

But the other thing that I’m reminded of when watching this story is that it’s the first one that I had seen in the eighties to show the interior of the TARDIS, and reveal that the blue box is bigger on the inside. I honestly don’t recall being surprised by this, oddly.

Anyway, our son spent most of the last hour with his head buried. “Planet of Evil” has a reputation as one of the all-time great scary Who stories. It’s written by Louis Marks and directed by David Maloney. The guest stars include Prentis Hancock and Frederick Jaeger, and Michael Wisher is back again in a small role. The real star, of course, is the jungle planet of Zeta Minor, one of the most successful alien planets ever created in a studio for the BBC. I like this story, but I’ve never loved it. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I just don’t enjoy watching Prentis Hancock at the best of times, and this script has him in the unbelievably thankless role of a military idiot.

We’ll see what he thinks of the ending of this story in a couple of days. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more military idiocy to come, and a lot less weird alien jungles.

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (part six)

There are some good Dalek stories after this one. Some very good ones, in fact. But I really don’t think “Genesis of the Daleks” has been surpassed by any of the Dalek adventures that have come since its 1975 broadcast. And it all comes down to the last seven minutes or so.

Honestly, this last part is a little flabby. The Doctor’s debate about blowing up the incubation chamber and killing all the infant mutants inside is rightly remembered as amazing. It’s good that it takes a minute to address the issue: the Doctor is about to commit genocide. The only Daleks that will survive are the ones in the death squad that’s been recalled. It’s left to these eight or nine to spawn all the Daleks of the future.

Interestingly, this story has sparked all sorts of speculation about what, exactly, the Doctor actually accomplished here. Did he change the future in some way? Did he cause a long enough delay to force the Daleks that we see later in the program to be less scheming and less successful?

On a related note, I really like the retcon that Russell T. Davies introduced, that once the Daleks somehow figure out that the Time Lords screwed with their development, this story becomes the first strike in the Time War of his era. I remain disappointed that something that could have been mythic and almost impossible to imagine, let alone visualize, a cosmos-spanning event that rewrites all of galactic history with every campaign, finally made it to the screen as a bunch of silly men and silly robot-things shooting each other with zap guns, but I think that Davies had the right idea. If the Daleks absolutely had to be the Time Lords’ opponent in the War, then making “Genesis” a preemptive strike is a great idea.

Minus that scene, the first two-thirds of this episode is padding and flab, and then the Daleks make their move and it’s incredible. I love how they don’t talk for a few moments. They just murder Nyder. Then they kill all the extras, after letting Davros know that they do not understand the word “pity.” I love this all mainly because they’ve been obedient little killers, agreeably doing whatever Davros tells them, until they all get together and exterminate everybody. It’s a fabulous climax.

But with it goes the greatness of the old Daleks. The scheming and the quiet manipulation of “Master Plan,” “Power,” “Evil,” even “Planet” really gets replaced from this story on, at least until the Time War. The Daleks that we see in the rest of the classic series just aren’t as effective, in a narrative sense, despite a couple more good stories. And Davros, sadly, doesn’t stay dead, again despite a couple more good appearances when Julian Bleach is in the chair. So I guess the Doctor did accomplish something after all. He made the villains so much less entertaining!

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