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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (parts one and two)

Earlier this month, when I wrote about “The Leisure Hive”, I talked about how in this season, there’s a greater sense of real space in the environments. Every story we’ve watched has great examples, particularly the Starliner in “Full Circle,” but the planet of Traken is the best of them all. It’s not just having more sets and extras than the obvious example, Peladon, it’s having characters with lives that seem to have existed before the plot of the month came crashing down atop them. This is what a later producer, Russell T. Davies, sensibly understood about making the world of the show feel real, and what his successor, Steven Moffat, frequently forgot.

So while I don’t love “The Keeper of Traken,” I absolutely admire it. The writer, director, designer, and composer are all working in fabulous synchronicity. It’s a good story, not a great one, but it’s a truly fine production. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Johnny Byrne, and, sadly, by some measure the best of his three. Byrne came to Who by way of All Creatures Great and Small, where he had worked with Who‘s producer John Nathan-Turner and been the script editor for that show’s first three series. Before that, he had written about a quarter of Space: 1999.

In the cast, we’ve got twenty year-old Sarah Sutton playing Nyssa, a character who, like Adric, appears meant to be a young teenager. John Woodnutt makes his final Who appearance, and Anthony Ainley, about whom, more later, makes his first. Denis Carey and Sheila Ruskin are also very memorable in their parts here.

Our son might have liked this story a little less than he claimed, because he was pretty restless and seemed frustrated by the mystery. The serial is centered around an evil being called a Melkur that, like others before it, turned to stone as soon as it landed on Traken about a decade previously. The planet has a bio-electric power source that freezes and calcifies intruders with evil intent, which is a whimsical, fairy tale-like idea given a sci-fi sheen that doesn’t quite make sense but just feels right. That’s another way that the production triumphs, by taking this odd idea and making it work, against the grumbling of anybody who wants to be critical about it. But the evil being is, of course, just biding its time and literally growing moss waiting for the incredibly powerful Keeper of this planetary system to die.

I think the director does reveal a little too much too soon, but whatever Melkur is, he’s the second villain this season, after Meglos, to know that the Doctor is a Time Lord and is prepared to deal with him. Perhaps this is an early indicator of the Doctor’s reputation preceding him, or perhaps we’re starting to get people behind the scenes who are much, much more interested in the program’s past and its continuity than ever before.

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Doctor Who: Shada (parts two through six)

My eyes are still popping out of my head. We picked up the story of “Shada” from where we left off last night, with the original cliffhanger to part one, and enjoyed this presentation so much more. I’ve always liked “Shada” and have watched the 1992 version several times. My only complaint about this edition is that it’s only available as a single feature that lasts two hours and eighteen minutes. I would have preferred they kept the original episodic structure.

All of the original “Shada” recording sessions and film material were retained, so the team who worked on this could go right back to scratch and restore everything as new. The result is absolutely beautiful. Seventies Doctor Who has never looked as good as this. The lengthy animated sections are rudimentary, but what really impressed me was the new model work. They didn’t have the budget in 1992 for the comparatively lavish space station Think Tank that’s seen here.

And yes, it’s a very good story. Not “City of Death” good, true, but had this been completed in 1979, everybody would have said it was the second best production of this troubled season. The Doctor’s initial confrontation with Skagra has always tickled me, and our son completely loved the bicycle chase, all the K9 action, and the mind-control fight of the climax. He thought it was “super exciting” and says that the monstrous Krargs were “awesome.” Then again, we’re clearly not doing our job as residents of Tennessee. During the bike chase, the Doctor races past a vocal group on a street corner singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Our son didn’t recognize the song! Sorry, Glenn Miller. I thought it was ubiquitous…

The restored and completed “Shada” will be released in North America in November. That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll start looking at season eighteen in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Shada (part one)

There may be one or six readers who visit us here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time who don’t know about “Shada.” For them, briefly, the situation is that Douglas Adams wrote a six-part serial to wrap up his year as script editor for Doctor Who. Actors Denis Carey, Victoria Burgoyne, and Christopher Neame, among others, joined the cast and director Pennant Roberts in Cambridge in October 1979 for location filming. Then they returned to London for what should have been three studio recording sessions. They finished the first, rehearsed the second, and then a years-long dispute between the BBC and one of the technician unions blew up.

The cast were locked out of the studio, it didn’t get resolved in time for other productions on the calendar, the actors’ time-sensitive contracts expired, and the show was formally axed shortly afterward. Adams and the program’s producer, Graham Williams, got to end their time on Who with a story that was cancelled. Some of the film footage was used as “new” material four years later in “The Five Doctors,” and even more of the script was used as “new” material in Adams’ 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. He also used with the climax of “City of Death,” which I always thought was a bit cheeky of him.

In 1992, BBC Video released a “best that could be done” version of “Shada,” with a small budget for some visual effects and editing. It was overseen by the show’s last producer, John Nathan-Turner, and featured music by Keff McCulloch, who evidently didn’t actually watch the visuals that he was scoring, along with an introduction and linking narration by Tom Baker, kind of sort of in character but also wearing a pretty nice suit. This version later made its way to DVD in a three-disc set with a boatload of extras and the fab, feature-length documentary More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS. Tonight, we sat down to enjoy the first twenty-ish minutes of this story in its 1992 incarnation.

And enjoy’s the right word. For ages, with only a fan-assembled compilation of the footage making the bootleg rounds to view, one school of thought in the eighties said that “Shada” was a lost classic, that it was the epic we should have got. Other, much grouchier people pointed out that the two previous “epic” six-part serials that Graham Williams had produced were “The Invasion of Time” and “The Armageddon Factor,” neither of which blew anybody’s mind, and really, why should anybody expect this would have been all that different from “The Horns of Nimon,” which should have been the story that led into “Shada,” and not the season finale it became.

Simple. “City of Death” was, after all, very, very different from “The Horns of Nimon.”

I think that “Shada” is completely wonderful. It’s by leagues the best evidence we’ve got that Pennant Roberts had such a good reputation as a director, because the location work in Cambridge is just fantastic, and the scenes set in Professor Chronotis’s oddball shambles of a room in Cambridge’s St. Cedd’s College are delightful. Not very much happens in part one, but it’s very witty and very fun to watch, and I love Christopher Neame stomping around Cambridge in his sci-fi villain costume and not attracting anybody’s attention. The bit about the inhuman babbling of undergraduates always slays me, and there’s better still to come.

At least I think there is. I haven’t actually seen what comes next. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow morning.

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