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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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K9 and Company 1.1 – A Girl’s Best Friend

The only spinoff that made it to the screen during Doctor Who‘s first 26 years was this lone unsold pilot starring Elisabeth Sladen that aired as a Christmas special in 1981. It’s also the first occasion that the show ever gave some screen time to a former companion, as we catch up with Sarah Jane Smith, last seen in 1976’s “The Hand of Fear”.

According to this episode, the Doctor dropped K9 Mark Three off at Sarah Jane’s house in Croydon in 1978. He sat boxed up in an attic while Sarah was off being a journalist, and eventually the crate made its way to the large country house owned by Sarah’s Aunt Lavinia, just in time for Sarah to finally be in the same place as her gift and have a small adventure around some superstitious country folk still a-worshippin’ the “Black Arts” while people start disappearing, including her aunt’s science-obsessed ward Brendon.

(Incidentally, there’s no particular reason to think that the fourth Doctor dropped off a new K9 for his old friend somewhere in the space between “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis,” but that doesn’t stop list-making fans from trying to crowbar it in right there. For all we know, the Doctor assembled Mark Two and Mark Three together, before he even met Romana. Or maybe the next Doctor built him.)

Anyway, despite the presence of notable actors like Bill Fraser and Colin Jeavons, the episode, written by Terence Dudley, has never engaged me much, but we had the actual target audience on the sofa between us, and our favorite seven year-old critic thought this was just fine. It may not be particularly thrilling, and it might lack menace or urgency, but the pace is just perfect for kids this age to chew on the mystery and consider who, other than Jeavons’ character and his leather-jacketed son, is in Hecate’s coven. Of course, he was most pleased with K9’s two action scenes.

The episode got some very respectable ratings – better than season 18 of the parent show, in fact – but there was some changeover of the muckity-mucks in charge at the BBC and more episodes weren’t commissioned. Elisabeth Sladen would have to wait another quarter-century to headline a Who spinoff, but she and K9 would be back in just a couple of years.

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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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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (parts three and four)

Memory’s a tricky thing. Every once in a while, our son will just toss a random Doctor Who fact my way, suggesting that he thinks about some old episodes from time to time. But he doesn’t recall the Master’s last appearance, in “The Deadly Assassin”, at all. We only watched it in April. But it’s also true that he didn’t actually enjoy that story even a little bit.

So part three of “The Keeper of Traken” ends with the not-completely-surprising revelation that the Master is behind the plot, and that his TARDIS – he has two! – has been standing in place as the Melkur statue for something like a decade. Inside, he’s evidently been healing somewhat, because he doesn’t have the hideous skeleton eyes that Peter Pratt wore as the Master in “Assassin.” Geoffrey Beevers plays the Master this time out. Fanon suggests that Pratt and Beevers are each playing the thirteenth and final incarnation of the Master… which is where Anthony Ainley comes in.

Whatever you think of “Traken,” you can’t deny it has a very unique finale. The Doctor and Adric have saved the day, with the assistance of their friends Tremas, played by Ainley, and his daughter Nyssa, and make their customary hasty exit. But the story doesn’t end like we think it should. In a devilishly mean-spirited epilogue, we see that the Master had a second TARDIS parked inside the Melkur-TARDIS, and, using the power he’d somehow absorbed from the Traken Source, he takes over and steals Tremas’s body, clicks his heels and leaves to go cause some chaos dressed in black and with the customary Master mustache and beard. Nyssa’s left to wonder where her father went.

Ainley seems like he was an incredibly interesting fellow. By 1981, he was about ready to retire from acting and just play cricket at leisure, because he’d inherited what many people report was a very, very large amount of money. Who‘s producer, John Nathan-Turner, remembered Ainley from a BBC series he’d worked on in 1974 called The Pallisers and thought he’d be a perfect Master, and then, far too frequently, didn’t commission any decent scripts for him. Ainley had also co-starred in a downright odd ATV spy series called Spyder’s Web which I probably enjoy more than you do, although John at the Cult TV Blog has also celebrated its prickly strangeness, and he was in The Land That Time Forgot and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a fine character actor finally landing a role everybody would remember.

I’m reasonably certain our son won’t forget Ainley’s version of the Master. Reasonably. We’ll see him again very, very soon. But I was really surprised by how thoroughly he had forgotten the Pratt incarnation. During the closing credits of part three, I asked him whether he was surprised to see the Master again. After all, he did just freeze, give a shocked face, and tumble to the floor when Beevers turns to the camera chuckling. But at the end of the story, he told us he really liked this one, but didn’t understand “just one thing… when that showed us that it was the Master, how’d you know it was the Master?”

And I guess he had a point. Even for viewers with longer memories, it had been four years since the Master’s previous appearance…

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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: Warriors’ Gate (parts three and four)

The other thing I really don’t like about “Warriors’ Gate” is Romana’s departure. It’s not as bad as Leela’s was, but it’s far too sudden and it isn’t given any sense of occasion.

Imagine this story with the roles reversed. If Romana had spent part three behind the mirror, then we’d see a reason for her empathy with the Tharils and her decision wouldn’t seem like it came from nowhere. I think that could have made a good serial much stronger.

But this is otherwise a solid story, and I like the way it assumes that the viewers are intelligent enough to figure out that time can flow in different directions on the other side of the gateway’s mirror. I don’t really have a lot of time to talk about it tonight, but our son also enjoyed it, and thought it was compelling and weird. It probably needed more of those Gundan robots, though. He really liked those things.

He’s also got his fingers crossed that there will be a K9 Mark Three. He’ll find out pretty soon.

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Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (parts one and two)

It’s kind of the nature of characters in adventure shows to do dumb things. Admittedly, the audience is given a lot more clues than Romana could know that the dudes who show up outside the TARDIS – one of them played by the great Kenneth Cope – are some of the cruelest, most desperate, and most hateful villains the show’s given us for some time: slave traders. But Romana was given enough of a warning when a strange lion-man, wearing shackles!, actually enters the TARDIS and warns them about the people who are chasing him. I guess she figures that she can be smug and superior and push these guys around, and she’s completely out of her depth, kidnapped, and nearly killed by them.

This has always weighed heavily on this story for me. “Warriors’ Gate” is the first Doctor Who serial written by Stephen Gallagher, who would later write some successful science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories. It’s an extremely interesting and complex story with some really interesting visuals – particularly in the next two parts – but Romana’s idiotic decision to put herself in danger has always aggravated me. There should have been another way to get her involved in the narrative than that.

I thought that our son would be a little more baffled than he was, but really, the first two parts are actually pretty straightforward. It’s when we get to the other side of the Gateway that the narrative gets a little less direct. He really enjoyed the Gundan robots, creaky, decaying skeletal things in armor with axes that have been left to be covered by cobwebs and dust. Like I say, it certainly is a story with great visuals, and part two ends with a very effective hand-held camera shot from the POV of one of the lion-man slaves, stalking his way through the cargo ship toward the helpless Romana, which he said was incredibly scary.

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