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Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (parts three and four)

I’m not surprised that our son came around in the end. He still had a couple of moments of fright, but between all the explosions, and the Doctor’s magic tricks, and the incredibly fun cliffhanger to part three, he was much more excited tonight than scared. Happily, our son’s still not quite at the age where he can see what’s coming very easily. I’m pretty sure any grownup would figure out that a girl from a planet called Vulpana who gets frightened by pictures of the moon and who gets taunted with a silver bullet might just be a werewolf. Not this eight year-old.

By a weird coincidence, over supper, our son asked me what my favorite Who stories are. I mentioned some from the shows that we’ve watched together: “The Enemy of the World,” “Spearhead from Space,” “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” “Kinda,” and “Snakedance.”

And then there’s this one, which is just completely brilliant.

That’s the end of this batch of stories, but we’ll watch the last of the original seasons of Doctor Who in July. Stick around and stay tuned!


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Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (parts one and two)

Tonight’s Doctor Who adventure has our son absolutely freaked out. He hasn’t been this completely frightened by the series in a long, long time. He spent most of the second episode behind the sofa. That’s in small part because the clowns at the Psychic Circus have got under his skin, but mainly because the sense of something being badly, badly wrong is totally overwhelming. He’s really enjoyed the heck out of the last seven stories, and then this thing turns out to be a nightmare.

It’s a delightful shame, because I love this one to pieces. “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” was written by Stephen Wyatt and features a fun guest performance by T.P. McKenna as an intergalactic explorer and blowhard. Along with him is a curious girl in very, very late eighties makeup and hair played by Jessica Martin. This is one of Ace’s finest stories. She’s every bit a sixteen year-old grump in this one, and it really looks like for once, the Doctor’s got it all wrong because Ace is absolutely right to be worried and afraid of the circus.

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Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis (parts two and three)

I guess one advantage to producing a TV show is that if the stars line up right, and the stars are making movies or stage appearances in London, then you can ask some of your favorite celebrities to come work on your show for a day or a week. Who‘s producer at the time, John Nathan-Turner, was a huge fan of show tunes and Broadway musicals, so he was incredibly happy to have Stubby Kaye in a story the previous year, and Dolores Grey making a cameo appearance in this one.

I was reminded, oddly, of how Ben Browder, who’d been in Farscape and Stargate SG-1, appeared in the 2013 story “A Town Called Mercy,” and how Steven Moffat was praised by some geek-focused media for casting somebody with a sci-fi TV background. I wondered what American sci-fi TV actors might have been around in 1987 and 1988 had Nathan-Turner wanted to court that audience instead. I can imagine DeForest Kelley as Weismuller in “Delta and the Bannermen,” and June Lockhart as Mrs. Remington in this story. Wouldn’t that have been cute?

As for the rest of the story, I liked it a little more this time than previously, though it’s still the worst of McCoy’s twelve adventures. The kid had a ball. There are huge explosions and Cybermen getting blown to smithereens, so what’s here for an eight year-old to dislike?

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Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis (part one)

“Cybermen! Cybermen mean trouble! Cybermen TOTALLY mean trouble!” That was our son’s excited response to this episode’s cliffhanger. I asked him what he thought of the three evil parties now competing for a statue made of living metal. “The Cybermen want it so they can make MORE Cybermen, and the Nazis want it to last for a thousand years, and the evil lady just wants it.” We’d paused earlier to explain what the Nazis’ leader meant when he gave his soldiers – who, like no Nazis I ever heard of, are armed with Uzis – a toast to the Fourth Reich. Television Nazis are always offering toasts to the Fourth Reich.

The evil lady is played by Fiona Walker, and interestingly, her character, Lady Peinforte, is presented as an old foe of the Doctor’s from an adventure we’ve never seen. This would be done again to better effect in the next season with Fenric. Her henchman is presented as a ruthless criminal and murderer. In the same way that the story itself will disappoint us over the next two parts, he’ll deteriorate into a comedy stooge.

This morning was the first time that I’ve watched this episode as it was broadcast in almost thirty years. The script editor, Andrew Cartmel, did a lot for Who that we can genuinely praise, but the fellow was just no good at actually timing the scripts before they taped them. Most of the twelve serials that he worked on overran by several minutes, and most of the DVDs feature some deleted scenes.

When they released “Silver Nemesis” on VHS, it was in an extended edition, with each episode bulked up with material, about twelve minutes in all, most in part one. I certainly used to have a DVD-R of the tape, but I seem to have gotten rid of it, which isn’t like me. What’s more like me is buying the official release and putting the sleeve and proper disk into a double-disk case with the bootleg of the extended edition.

I recall watching the extended version with my older kids around 2005, and my son spotting Nicholas Courtney as an extra in the Windsor Castle tourist group, and shouting “Hey, it’s the Brigadier!” That shot didn’t make the broadcast cut, so even if our boy, who is the same age my older kid was when he saw it, was able to identify actors, he never had the chance. Courtney’s back is to the camera in the only shots in the original version. I am disappointed that the BBC didn’t include the extended edit on the DVD version, although there is a lengthy deleted scenes package, so we will go back and see the timey-wimey moment with Ace’s portrait later tonight. Funny how I got so used to the longer VHS version that its original twenty-five minute form felt like watching a “chopped for syndication” version. Hey, there’s a scene missing there!

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Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol (part three)

There’s a moment in this episode where Helen A calls the Kandyman. He picks up an old-fashioned telephone and says “Kandyman!” That slays me every time. It’s so perfect.

For a long time, I would have gladly told you this was one of my favorite stories without even paying any attention to what was happening when the Kandyman was offscreen. See, there was a good chunk of time there when… well, I had a long-running association with a certain illegal hallucinogen. And when you’re in that incense-and-peppermints / listen-to-the-color-of-your-dreams state of mind, an amazing visual like the Kandyman kind of pops out a bit and lingers.

A couple of years later, I actually paid attention to the rest of the story. It struggles with many of the things Doctor Who always struggled with: there are nowhere close to enough extras, the sets don’t convey the scale and scope of the city, the microphones are never in the right place to clearly catch Sophie Aldred’s wonderful dialogue and delivery. But the ideas at work here are fascinating. This is a story about empires toppling, about this Doctor getting furious enough to flex his muscles and overthrow a totalitarian government in a single night. David Tennant’s Doctor owes a great deal to the Seventh. “Don’t you think she looks tired?” is something this incarnation would have come up with.

It’s a fabulous story full of great performances by John Normington, Harold Innocent, and especially Sheila Hancock, who gets one of the best climaxes any Who villain ever gets. It is bring-a-tear-to-my-eye good, every time. Part of me wishes the budget could have given the story a little more visual depth, but part of me likes it just fine the way it is. “The Happiness Patrol” transcends its low budget limitations and remains one of my five or so favorite Who stories. It’s a simmering, angry masterpiece.

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Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol (parts one and two)

I had the silly idea to distract from the astonishing first appearance of the Kandyman in tonight’s story – more about him next time – by telling our son that there was a dog in this serial. A mean dog. Well, sort of a dog. He’s called Fifi and he’s owned by an even meaner woman, a despot called Helen A who talks a lot like Margaret T and acts a lot like Pinochet. Helen A is played by Sheila Hancock and it’s a terrific performance. It’s possibly not quite as devilish as Spitting Image was to Thatcher, but it’s devilish, all right. Some time after Doctor Who became popular again, there was a newspaper story about how this one time in the late eighties, this show was being… gasp! political! Took them long enough to notice.

But no, the Kandyman quite naturally stole the show from Fifi. Our son responded with a face of utter astonishment and even after it resolved into smug satisfaction because he “knew it was a robot,” he was amused and amazed and had a lot to say. He complained that Fifi didn’t do very much, and I assured him that we’d see more of Fifi tomorrow night, and that we’ll see the Kandyman answer the phone. “What’s he going to do,” our son asked, and I’ll grant you this very next bit is a very odd thing to say, “take his arm off and scream ‘Gilbert! I’m stuck in the lemonade again!’ or something?” Then he wondered whether the Kandyman would win a fight with a lemonade stand, and for the next two minutes, he bellowed “Gilbert!”

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

Why yes, as a matter of fact, our son really did love the Special Weapons Dalek. It’s a Dalek “tank” that can blow up two or three renegade Daleks at a time.

“Remembrance” may be a case of style over substance, but it’s an incredibly fun story. I kind of wish the music was a bit less eighties and a little more sixties, but it’s a fine production of a good script. I definitely wish the show had been this confident and this much fun every week between 1982 and 1986.

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

We’re in 1988 now, and the Doctor and Ace are back at Coal Hill School and I.M. Foreman’s junkyard in 1963 with Daleks, because it’s the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who and that’s what you do for anniversaries on television: go and revisit the past. But in the case of Ben Aaronovitch’s debut serial for the show, “Remembrance of the Daleks,” reveling in nostalgia works just fine. This is a splendid story with lots of location filming, some recognizable guest stars including Simon Williams and Pamela Salem as sort of the early sixties version of UNIT, and George Sewell as a fascist who’s allied himself with one of two rival factions of Daleks. They even found small roles for Peter Halliday and Michael Sheard, who’d appeared in something like a combined nine prior Who stories.

This looks and sounds a million times zippier than Who did just three years previously. We’ll hit a couple of places in the show’s last two years where the emphasis on speed will derail the program’s ability to tell a coherent story, but “Remembrance” gets it incredibly right. The action scenes are staged and directed far better than Who could typically manage, leading to the beautiful cliffhanger to part two, in which Sophie Aldred and her stunt double beat the daylights out of a Dalek using a supercharged baseball bat and then jump from table to table and out a glass window. I really love that scene!

Our son was in heaven, of course. There are Daleks and death rays and lots of explosions. In fairness, though, the two of us did see Godzilla: King of the Monsters this morning and he’s been dancing on air ever since. (I didn’t post about it because I didn’t want to sound like too much of a fuddy-duddy, but when we picked up Marie for lunch, she said “The movie was longer than I expected” and I replied “I checked its running time first and it was longer than I expected, too.”) So yes, he liked these two installments quite a lot, but I thought to remind Marie of Quatermass and the Pit between episodes so she’d catch the Easter egg in part three. She said “Yeah, the one with the buried alien monsters, right?” and our son said “That reminds me of Godzilla somehow!”


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