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Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma (parts three and four)

It’s not nice to kick a show when it’s down, but I swear the birdmen in this Doctor Who story look a whole lot like the chicken-people in that one unfortunate episode of Far Out Space Nuts that we watched a couple of years ago. You try to keep an open mind and a kind heart about these things, but there really isn’t anything good about this.

Worst of all, there’s a total disconnect between the story’s insistence to have twin boy geniuses whose mathematical equations can somehow change and alter actual space, and the story’s hear-it-to-believe-it scheme involving planets crashing into a sun, causing it to go supernova, which probably wouldn’t happen, and somehow not destroy a million eggs but send them on beeline courses – very, very, very fast – onto planets with breathable atmospheres for the slug-creatures inside to hatch and find food. No, none of that makes any sense. It’s by some measure the stupidest evil plan that any villain in Doctor Who ever came up with.

And yet, I can’t help but think that the twin kids must have been intended to have something more to do with this plot instead of being helpless kidnap victims. I just bet that somewhere along the line, in one draft or another, their mathematical super-genius was intended to plot courses for the eggs, through wormholes or black holes or something, so that the eggs would instantly land on appropriate worlds. It would still be insanely dumb, but at least one of the many flaws in Mestor’s wild scheme would have been addressed.

The kid liked it, anyway. He’s not feeling very good tonight and he went on to bed early, but he liked the Doctor being rude and loud. Colin Baker is definitely the best thing about this adventure.

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Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma (parts one and two)

One of the weirdest casting decisions in all of Doctor Who comes with the final serial in season 21. It stars Edwin Richfield, a then 63 year-old character actor with an expressive face and a fine voice, wrapped in an old thick carpet wearing a full-face mask and speaking with some of “Weird” Al Yankovic’s marbles in his mouth. Mestor is such a dopey villain, and the costume is as embarrassing as it ever gets on Who, and instead of throwing a bone of a part to some kid fresh out of drama school and hungry for work, they waste, and I mean waste, the great Edwin Richfield on it.

But the real casting news here is that Colin Baker takes over as the Sixth Doctor. A decade before, Baker had played the very memorable Paul Merroney for four series of The Brothers. This was a boardroom drama, and Merroney was apparently something like a proto-JR Ewing or Gordon Gekko, a greedy tycoon out to crush the little guys. I’ve never seen The Brothers myself; Kate O’Mara played a corporate rival for a few years on it, which makes me curious to try out the DVD sets from Simply Media one day.

So after a lot of theater work and some occasional guest appearances as villains in other programs – including a bad guy part in Who just a year and change earlier, in “Arc of Infinity” – Baker got the role of a lifetime, playing a hero at last.

We’re in the swamp of Doctor Who at this point. Baker, a heck of a great talent, and Nicola Bryant, an engaging and promising rising star, were lumbered with an aging show led by a producer who was ready to move on to pantomimes and variety shows, and a script editor who had lost interest in the lead character’s intelligence and desire to find solutions without violence. The show needed a fresh start and new blood behind the scenes very, very badly, and American fandom, in particular, has always had a mean eye toward the Colin Baker years.

And to be honest, for a long time, I didn’t like Baker’s Doctor at all. I didn’t get it. I was too teenage when he started, I thought the costume was embarrassing, and I hated the constant squabbling.

And then, around 2005, I watched this run with my older children, who were then about six and eight years old, and I got it. They loved this Doctor. They forgot about Peter Davison inside fifty minutes. They breezed right past the shocking scene where the sick and mentally addled Doctor actually attacks Peri, because everything else in this story was what they wanted to see from their Doctor. This guy is a perfect hero for children. He is bad-tempered and does not react well to anybody telling him to calm down, he is as loud as he wants to be and nobody tells him to hush. This is a Doctor who does not have to clean his room or take out the garbage. He has an acid tongue and devilish wit.

And tonight, as I predicted, our son followed in their footsteps. After the awful scene where he chokes Peri – a poor decision at the time and one that has worn very badly in thirty-five years – our kid was smiling, laughing, and melodramatically facepalming at the Doctor’s antics. “He’s so unpredictable!” he shouted.

To be clear, “The Twin Dilemma” isn’t so much a mess as it is a catastrophe. It’s a dopey story full of terrible acting performances. Everybody rolls their eyes at the two bowl-hair kids playing the twins, but Dennis Chinnery, who plays their father, is even worse. Colin Baker can’t save the disaster, but if you watch this with a kid, and see what that kid is seeing, and loving, it’s entertaining in an honest and real way.

Although, as much as I enjoyed the experience of seeing our son grin and smile, the best part of tonight’s viewing was when Marie asked how long the Doctor wears that horrible jacket and I could only say “umm.”

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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (parts three and four)

I enjoy watching old Doctor Who in a vacuum, with my family not knowing what to expect, like the Doctor regenerating. It makes for some fun surprises. Our son was particularly blindsided, and says that he’ll miss this Doctor.

Me, I say there definitely should have been another way. Peter Davison has never been shy about expressing his frustrations making the show. He loved being the Doctor, but the experience of actually working on this show, particularly in his delay-plagued second season, was too frustrating to continue. Davison said that Patrick Troughton had advised him to not stay for more than three years up front, and I still think Troughton should’ve zipped it. Particularly with the original version of “Resurrection of the Daleks” canceled and the producer’s very disagreeable decision to give Colin Baker one story at the end of this season, Davison was already down eight episodes that he should have been able to make – ten if you count K-9 and Company, which was made with season nineteen’s budget. We should have had more.

I’ll come back to that “disagreeable decision” when we start watching the Sixth Doctor next month, but speaking of “Resurrection,” this is the second story this season where darn near every person in the thing dies. The only ones to make it out in one piece are Peri, the evil Miss (“Krau”) Timmin on the other planet, and that dude in part one who doesn’t have any lines but is seen on his way to blow up the North Core Copper Mines, and he was probably arrested in the sweep of Morgus’s businesses and sentenced to death. Unlike “Resurrection,” all these creeps had it coming. A great character actor named John Normington plays Morgus, and I just love his asides directly to the camera. These are meant to be very theatrical, but it’s almost like Morgus knows that we’re watching him!

Roy Holder, who had been Chas in the third series of Ace of Wands twelve years earlier, is one of the gun runners. I mentioned earlier the fun of watching the show with my family, who don’t know what to expect. Holder’s character is one of two who decide against joining their boss and Morgus in their last, desperate search for more of the rare McGuffin element. They say they have two kilos and that’s more than enough. So Morgus and their boss leave them to it. Marie quietly told our son “I think he made the sensible decision.” I smiled, knowing that “sensible” decision was seconds away from ending his life.

“Caves” is excellent, but it’s also so unpleasant that I can’t believe that Peri would have chosen to stick around had this been her first trip after “Planet of Fire.” Would you? I’d be saying “Take me home immediately” after this – particularly when the guy with whom I agreed to travel about a day previously sat up looking like Colin Baker and got snide with me – unless I’d spent a few weeks with less traumatic events first. So there are several novels and more than a dozen audio adventures with Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant, several of which also feature an additional companion from ancient Egypt called Erimem.

I don’t actually enjoy the audio adventures myself – I think that my problem is that I lack the imagination to see the worlds that they’re describing – but I love that there are so many to choose from for all the fans who enjoy them. The same is true for the next two Doctors, who also had their BBC runs truncated before they should have ended. At least Peter Davison got to end his Doctor’s TV run on a really high note, and got to leave when he was ready to go.

We’ll start watching Colin Baker’s run as Doctor Who in mid-February. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (parts one and two)

Ask a hundred people which is their favorite Peter Davison Doctor Who story. Five will say “Kinda.” I’m one of the five who’ll say “Snakedance.” The other ninety will say it’s this one. Less the stragglers who’ll eventually pop in the comments and protest that it’s something else, of course.

“The Caves of Androzani” really is blisteringly good. It’s the first of two adventures in the eighties that Graeme Harper directed, and wow, did he ever know what he was doing. This looks amazing, and the great music by Roger Limb helps a lot, too. The direction is so good that Harper could have made even a mediocre story into a highlight, but this story isn’t mediocre. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Robert Holmes in five years. Man, was he ever missed.

“Androzani” features some of Holmes’s effortless world-building, but this one’s a little different from the planets and cultures he’d designed in the past. There is no wit, and there aren’t any heroes. We only see the horrible people: an army of brutal military thugs, the corrupt politicians and businessmen bankrolling them, a team of bloodthirsty gun runners, and the criminal who controls the rare substance they all want: spectrox, which can extend or even double the life spans of humanoids. They are all terrible. And they are all going to get what’s coming to them.

A lot of people will tell you that this story is perfect except for a dopey, fake, and honestly quite unnecessary monster in the middle of it. Typically, the monster – it’s called a Magma Beast – is by far our son’s favorite part of it. Since he likes good guys and never villains, there isn’t anybody in this story, other than the Doctor and Peri, for him to cheer on. So the Magma Beast is perfectly placed to keep his interest!

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

You may not believe this, but for me, the most memorable moments in “Planet of Fire” aren’t actually Nicola Bryant’s scenes in her bikini, delightful though those all-too-short scenes are. It’s not even the surprising – and surprisingly sad – farewell to Kamelion, as the robot begs for death and the Doctor obliges him. It’s not even anything to do with the terrific Peter Wyngarde, because he is so amazingly wasted in a role that just about anybody his age could have played.

No, the best part of “Planet of Fire” is the cliffhanger to part three and the great little bitchfest between the Master and Peri. After a third episode that’s even more boring than I remembered, it ends with the terrific surprise that the Master has accidentally shrunk himself and has been controlling Kamelion from a little control room about the size of a shoeshine boy’s box. This shocked our son so much that he fumbled his exclamation, shouting “What the world – wide – world?!” as the credits rolled. In part four, Peri gets a great moment when the Master, having scurried to his ship’s console and hidden inside, continues threatening her and she’s not having it. “You come out here and say that,” she shouts, and we all laughed. The scene honestly isn’t very well staged, but Anthony Ainley and Nicola Bryant sure did play it well.

But there’s another interesting thing about “Planet of Fire,” and that’s the departure of Turlough. All along, he’s felt like the producer and writers had no idea what they wanted to do with this character, and some of what’s revealed here seems very, very contradictory to what they were saying about him just months previously. Turlough was apparently a junior military officer on the losing side of a civil war on the planet Trion. So he’s presumably older than I thought, which makes his apparent “incarceration” in a boarding school even more ridiculous.

This is what they do with military prisoners on Trion: sentence them to go to school on less developed planets, where they will steal cars and pester the unpopular kids, under the watchful eye of a “strange solicitor” in London? Honestly, even knowing already about Turlough’s nonsensical past, it makes even less sense watched cohesively. It’s an early example of what would later exasperate me about The X Files or Lost. If you come up with the story in the first place, instead of inventing something later on to link all the jigsaw pieces together, it stands a much better chance of making sense!

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

Peter Grimwade’s “Planet of Fire” is the third Doctor Who story in a row to elicit just a shrug, but man alive, this one should have been better. There’s location filming in Lanzarote helmed by Fiona Cumming, a great guest star, errrm, the Master and Kamelion but never mind, and the debut of a new companion. It’s Peri, who becomes the first American to travel in the TARDIS.

I won’t hear a bad word about the actress who plays Peri. Her name is Nicola Bryant, and not only is she a perfectly good actress – and Peri gets a few really great scenes in later stories – she’s a fabulous ambassador for Doctor Who. Nobody’s paying her to be a positive force in fandom. This is a show she left thirty-plus years ago, and she’s still singing its praises and welcoming new actors to the family. (Plus, if you like dogs, she’s a great advocate for animal welfare and is always sharing pictures of her family pets on Twitter!)

But because I contradict myself and contain multitudes, I can call myself a fan of Nicola Bryant and also think that casting a British actress while claiming the new character was meant to appeal to the show’s new American audience was an unusual decision. (See the comments for more on that topic.) Peri’s always divided opinions. I bet that for every person I’ve ever met who liked Peri, I’ve met five who just spit nails at the mention of her name. That said, I have always wondered how the character would have gone over had the BBC found a way to get a known American actress, such as, say, Lisa Whelchel, who was Blair on The Facts of Life, to play Peri?

I was keen to get more input from my son into this critical situation, but he had a very long day, was very over-tired, and his initially pleasant surprise that Kamelion was actually present in this story eventually turned sour when the Master turned up as well. He didn’t have an opinion about Peri and I don’t think he paid very much attention to part two of this story at all.

Joining the regular cast in Lanzarote, there are a few fellows in old-fashioned robes, chief among them the great Peter Wyngarde. Unfortunately, Wyngarde is playing another dreary religious lunatic. You don’t suppose all these prophecies about a strange being called Logar are going to have a scientific explanation in the final episode, do you? Stopping Nicola Bryant from being the only woman with a speaking part, Barbara Shelley is here as well, but she doesn’t have very much to do. She’s so irrelevant to the plot that she just gets to appear in the studio material back in London, having missed out on the trip to Lanzarote.

Well, hopefully our son will wake up for part three, and it won’t be as much of a snooze fest as I remember. Fingers crossed!

Photo credit (Lisa Whelchel): https://www.pinterest.com/mercyjacobs/

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Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks (parts three and four)

If you read around, you’ll find some stories about how the American movie version of “Resurrection of the Daleks” was edited together from a complete cut of the first half, and a rough cut, lacking music, voiceovers, and sound effects, of the second. These stories don’t really explain how weird, ridiculous, and strange the experience was. Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, made all sorts of dumb decisions about the prints that they offered stations, but one of the worst was not phoning the BBC to get a replacement copy. We were stuck with that thing for years.

Bear in mind that for a long time, your average American viewer might not have had any idea that these 90-minute adventures were edited movie versions of four-part serials. There were clues that something was up, though. There were occasional editing hiccups, like the one halfway through “Arc of Infinity.” For some reason, the editor used the end of part two rather than the recap at the beginning of part three, so the shot of Sarah Sutton has the sound of the cliffhanger “sting” over her face right before the credits rolled.

So with “Resurrection,” halfway through, there’s the clumsiest edit in the universe. Rodney Bewes’s character says “I’m a Dalek agent,” and the screen goes black for a half-second, and then picks up halfway through a Dalek shouting “-terminate” and there isn’t any music or sound effects anymore. This makes some of the scenes completely comical. When the actress playing the civilian advisor to the military is deafened by a weird sci-fi sound, there isn’t actually any sound. She just falls over with her hands over her ears making odd noises. Another scene doesn’t have a pair of voiceovers by Terry Molloy, so he just opens a door and closes it for no apparent reason. Then there’s a trooper who gets shot in part four. With the music blaring, you can barely hear him, but without the music, he steals the scene when he yodels “Eeee-ohhh-urrrrp!” before falling over.

I wasn’t a big buyer of the Who VHS range. The tapes – at least the American tapes manufactured by CBS/Fox, were notorious among some of my friends for being bargain-basement quality. But I did buy the VHS of “Resurrection” just so I could see the second half as it was meant to be seen and heard!

While our son absolutely loved all the Daleks blowing each other to pieces, the most interesting thing to me about this story is that it writes Tegan out in a remarkably grim and unhappy way. The whole thing is relentlessly bleak – not just the entire supporting cast, but literally every character we see onscreen at all, save the resourceful mercenary Lytton and his two guards, all die – and part three of the story doesn’t just tread water as part threes in Doctor Who generally do, it’s tediously violent and gruesome while also barely advancing the plot. And so this is the point where Tegan decides that she just can’t stand it any more, and leaves. I think the final punch in her gut is the Doctor telling her that he intends to murder Davros. So when it’s finally safe to go because everyone is dead, she shakes the Doctor and Turlough’s hands and she’s gone before she bursts into tears. It’s so abrupt and sad, and it’s always punched me in the gut.

I was talking with our son two nights ago about the idea of fan theories. He was talking with some other kids about connections in the Pixar universe, and how Andy’s mom in Toy Story might have been Jessie’s original owner. I told him that there were all sorts of fan theories in Doctor Who and that I’d tell him about one in a couple of days. That’s because the previous day, I saw that somebody had suggested that the gun used in the most recent episode, “Resolution,” came from the warehouse in this adventure.

A couple of other theories come to mind about this story. Tegan leaves with literally nothing but the clothes on her back. She doesn’t even have a handbag, and that miniskirt doesn’t look like it has pockets. I think she made a collect call and phoned her grandfather, who we met in “The Awakening,” and he took the train up from Little Hodcombe to get her.

I was reminded of one of the many great ideas that Virgin’s line of Doctor Who novels introduced in the 1990s. At one point, the Doctor’s companion Bernice is left abandoned in 1909 and makes use of the Doctor’s bank account. At some point, the Doctor realized that it might be a good idea to have a resource available to any of his companions that get stranded or stuck in the UK, and time travellers should be pretty good about taking advantage of compound interest. I figure that’s part of Companion Orientation, getting the account number and a couple of withdrawal slips, and maybe an ATM / debit card for when you’re on the right side of the 1980s, so that when you call it off because it’s not fun anymore, you can take out a few hundred pounds to get your life back in order. All Tegan would need is proper identification… so maybe she should have grabbed her purse!

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Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks (parts one and two)

Yeah, that’s the Doctor carrying a pistol. I’d ask what the writer was thinking, but the writer was the program’s script editor Eric Saward, who had a very strong interest in telling stories about tough guys with guns. One of the tough guys with guns in this story is a mercenary working for the Daleks called Commander Lytton, played by Maurice Colbourne, and it’s fairly obvious across this story and the character’s next appearance that Saward would much, much rather have been working on a program called Commander Lytton, Space Badass.

Joining Colbourne in this story is Rodney Bewes, yet another example of the show casting a really recognizable face from a sitcom. Bewes is best remembered as one of The Likely Lads, a much-loved comedy from the sixties and seventies, and was also the straight man to the puppet Basil Brush for many years. This is the first adventure to feature Terry Molloy in the role of Davros. Molloy seems to try to make Davros much more disgusting, with a constant mouthful of spit and bile, than either of the previous actors to play him did.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, “Resurrection of the Daleks” was one of my favorite adventures, because it’s a story with lots of tough guys talking macho, and lots of guns, and, in our son’s favorite moment – most kids’ favorite moment, I bet – a Dalek gets shoved out a second story window and blows up when it lands dome-first on the pavement. I kind of prefer these less invincible Daleks, honestly. I think this story has aged very, very badly, but our kid, who was already riding high on the thrill of a much more invincible Dalek in Tuesday night’s new episode, “Resolution,” was in heaven.

More to talk about in the serial’s second half, though, so stay tuned!

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