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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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Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts three and four)

It’s not often that the climax of a Doctor Who undermines everything to quite the degree this one does. On the one hand, it’s kind of nice to have a Bob Baker script that doesn’t fall apart after episode one. This one waits until the fourth. But even before we get there, we have to contend with the Mandrels, who don’t rank on anybody’s list of favorite Who beasts. Some newspaper critic back in ’79 called them refugees from The Muppet Show, and he’s right. Tom Baker could have played this scene with Sweetums and Doglion, plus a laugh track, and it wouldn’t have looked any sillier.

Then there’s one of Tom’s most ill-advised ad-libs. You get used to Tom overacting and doing whatever he wants for a laugh in this period of the show, because it usually works at least a little. And so we get to the infamous incident where, offscreen, he’s being attacked by a Mandrel and bellows “My fingers, my arms… my everything!” and emerges with his clothes in tatters. It did get a big smile from our seven year-old son, who enjoyed the mayhem, but it completely undermined the simple moment just ninety-some seconds later when he just quietly says “Go away” to the villain. You can’t play the same page as both a pantomime and as a serious drama. The bigger will always overpower the smaller, which helps to explain why this story is so poorly regarded.

The villain doesn’t help matters much. I’m not sure whether it’s Lewis Fiander’s silly attempt at a German accent or his silly Roger McGuinn granny glasses that undermines the character more.

I think you can see a little more of Douglas Adams in this serial than in the previous one. The concept of two spaceships warping into each other and occupying the same space is a pleasantly high-SF idea, and the two customs officers who start complicating the story at the end of part two are bureaucracy-obsessed cousins of Shooty and Bang-Bang from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. (They’re also the spiritual ancestors of the Caretakers in the 1987 serial “Paradise Towers,” I think.)

But credit where it’s due: this was Bob Baker’s last contribution to Doctor Who after writing or co-writing eight serials over ten seasons. Among other credits after this, he co-created Into the Labyrinth for HTV and wrote a few episodes of the long-running cop show Bergerac before finding his biggest success as writer for the Wallace & Gromit films.

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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts three and four)

The great big question, of course, is not whether the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan will save all of human history by defeating Scaroth on the shores of primeval Earth four hundred million years ago, but whether our son would come to his senses and enjoy this story. Happily, he did, and even conceded that the first half was also pretty exciting. Of course he enjoyed Duggan. Heroes in Doctor Who who just want to punch and thump their way through the narrative are pretty rare, so Duggan’s fists-first approach resulted in a few giggles. When Duggan observes “That’s a spaceship!” in part four, how could you not just love the guy?

But our son is also very clear that Scaroth is, somehow, one of the creepiest and scariest of all Who monsters. “He’s just got one eye, and no nose, and no mouth,” he told me with some urgency. He also loved/hated the part where Catherine Schell unrolls an old parchment to see that one of the green-skinned, one-eyed splinters of Scaroth was hanging out in ancient Egypt with Thoth and Horus and, presumably, Sutekh, and I could feel our son’s skin crawl across the sofa.

Part four also has the delightful cameo appearance of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as a pair of art snobs critiquing the TARDIS, as they’ve mistaken it for an installation in a gallery. When it dematerializes, Bron, without a note of passion in her quiet voice, calls the installation “exquisite,” having no real idea what she’s seen. I love this bit. It certainly takes you out of the story to see John Cleese making a cameo, but it’s so funny that it’s impossible to object. The whole production’s like this. If there’s a flaw anywhere, who cares.

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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts one and two)

If there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t think that “City of Death” is one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, then naturally, that little contrarian would be sitting on the sofa with us, complaining that Julian Glover is too evil a villain, and that his alien other-self is too creepy and scary. I’ve shown several people this story over the years. Trust our seven year-old to be the first and certainly the only one to grumble about it being creepy.

Never mind him. “City of Death” is a magically witty, silly, and clever story with hilarious characters and some of the most consistently funny dialogue in the history of the program. The serial has an unusual origin. It started life as “The Gamble With Time,” a four-parter written by David Fisher and set in Monte Carlo, where the Doctor and Romana teamed up with a detective meant to be a pastiche of Bulldog Drummond to investigate a mysterious count using alien technology to manipulate casinos. At the eleventh hour, with most of the serial actually cast and rehearsals set to begin, “Gamble” was finally abandoned, in part probably because nobody in 1979 still cared about Bulldog Drummond, and, over four frantic days, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams rebuilt it into “City of Death.” They rushed off to France to film everybody jogging around Paris, and everything just clicked completely.

The rest is history. Accompanied by a publicity blitz surrounding Doctor Who‘s first overseas filming, “City of Death” hit the hugest ratings in the program’s history. In part that’s because ITV was actually on strike for the first three Saturdays this aired, but part four still had an audience of more than 16 million people. It’s one of the most amazingly quotable Who stories, although our son was baffled why I burst out laughing when the Doctor tells the countess “Well, you’re a beautiful woman, probably.”

Joining Julian Glover for this wonderful romp, there’s David Graham – still the voice of Parker from Thunderbirds – along with Catherine Schell, Tom Chadbon, and Peter Halliday in a small role. You’ve got seven Mona Lisas, timeslips, Louis XV chairs, alien technology, running through Paris, and a detective who’s very anxious to “thump” anybody. Even if this was creepy and scary, which it most certainly is not, I can’t imagine not loving this completely. Ah, well, our son does tend to enjoy the second half of Who adventures more than the first, so we’ll see what tomorrow night brings!

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

And so back to Doctor Who for six stories that fandom has always found pretty divisive. Conventional wisdom: It’s the two that Douglas Adams wrote and four wastes of time. Revisionist thought: This is Doctor Who at its most charming, effervescent, and downright fun.

I confess that I was in the conventional camp for a long, long time. These were the days when list-creating so-called fans, for whom Doctor Who was SRS BSNSS, kept looking back to their program’s glory days instead of looking forward. It took a lot of time, and the help of writer Gareth Roberts, to get me seeing straight. Roberts defended the season – and the Graham Williams era generally – in an excellent essay for the fanzine DWB in 1993, and then wrote a trio of downright fantastic Who novels set among these six serials. I liked all of his Who books that I’ve read, but The Romance of Crime, The English Way of Death, and The Well-Mannered War are all completely superb and I love them all. They sparkle with so much energy and possibility, and are witty, dramatic, and incredibly unpredictable.

Onscreen, things don’t quite look as full of energy as those books suggest. Douglas Adams took over the job of script editor and apparently wanted very badly to really shake up the format and introduce lots of new writers. He failed with both goals; the format of four-part serials was too much work for the new-to-television novelists and short story writers that he approached for pitches, but the format was critical to the show’s budget working out the way that it did. In the end, Adams had to rely on people who already knew Who, and even one of them, David Fisher, submitted a story that wasn’t working and so Adams and producer Graham Williams had to rewrite it from the ground up.

But a lot of the energy came from the stars of the show. Since Mary Tamm had decided to leave the program, they could have just had the Doctor return her character, Romana, to Gallifrey offscreen and meet a new character. Instead, they decided – and it’s kind of weird, when you think about it – to have Romana just up and regenerate and have her new body look just like the character of Astra from the previous story, played by Lalla Ward. And then Baker and Ward fell crazy stupid in love with each other, and you know what? They’re kind of wonderfully fun to watch together. Until a bit in the next season when they started fighting, anyway.

Things got started with “Destiny of the Daleks,” and you can be revisionist until you’re blue in the face, but Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are two of the only three elements of this story worth a hoot. I’ll get to the third one tomorrow. Adams found working on Who to be incredibly dispiriting and disappointing, and here’s four episodes that proved his point. He really wanted to do lots of short, zippy, intricate adventures with weird scientific concepts, a totally fresh outlook, and a fun, frantic pace, but ended up with four installments of Terry Nation phoning in his stock action-adventure cliches and filmed, again, in a rock quarry. The only things that Adams could do for this boring serial was spend extra time in the TARDIS at the beginning with Romana’s fun played-for-laughs regeneration instead of lumbering through an extra set piece on the planet, and insert a gag about a very minor Hitch-Hiker’s Guide character, Oolon Colluphid. He’s the author of a book that the Doctor is reading at one point.

But there are Daleks in it! Not that it matters much, because the story is slow and turgid and done without any urgency at all. There’s even a subplot about our heroes needing anti-radiation pills which is completely forgotten by the time part two begins. There’s no visual continuity between this and the previous Dalek adventure, which is allegedly set in the same place. But there are Daleks in it! And our son strangely didn’t seem to care too much. He grumbled that this was too creepy, again, although he was fascinated by the cliffhanger ending to part two, and the unfortunate revelation that Davros is still alive. Nothing has ever persuaded me that this was a good idea, but he’s curious about what will happen next.

The high point, though, was a fun moment where he speculated about what is going on in this ruined city. In the background of the main “entry level” set, there’s one of those old reel-to-reel computer tape decks. Our son remembered seeing similar props in the 1973 story “The Time Warrior”, although he couldn’t remember details about the adventure. He said “The Doctor HAS been here before, in the one with the alien in the medieval city!” He’d forgotten that “Warrior” was actually set on Earth, but he remembered a prop. I adore that even more than I adore Roberts’ incredibly fun novels.

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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (parts three and four)

This is so interesting. I’ve never, ever rated Pennant Roberts’ work as a director. When I was a loudmouthed fan repeating and recycling received wisdom in the eighties and nineties, I always singled him out for stick, and really, nothing of his that we have watched over the last three months – observed through adult, critical eyes – has shown me wrong. But he seems to have given both “The Sun Makers” and “The Pirate Planet” a certain power and energy that totally resonates with seven year-olds. Despite last night’s shock, and another one in tonight’s session I’ll discuss in a moment, our son absolutely loved these two stories. He wasn’t on the edge of his seat this evening, because he was either in the floor or on the other sofa. He was in heaven!

Even before the climax, K9 gets to have a gunfight with the Captain’s robot parrot, which is called the Polyphase Avatron. Douglas Adams had a gift for naming things, didn’t he? Now, I don’t envy Pennant Roberts’ job here. Managing gunfights in the BBC’s old three-camera “taped-as-live” studio format often foiled some of the best directors the BBC ever had. But poor Roberts had to try to make this compelling when one of the characters is a squat, bulky, remote-controlled tin dog, and the other one was a motionless prop blue-screened onto the picture.

Last night, after our son went to bed, we watched “The Last Lonely Man,” a third season episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown that was directed by Douglas Camfield, who many people believe was the best and most talented director working in British television during this period. (The episode, which co-stars Peter Halliday and features music by Don Harper, was broadcast one month after his Who serial “The Invasion”, which also featured Halliday and Harper.) I mention this because not even Camfield could have made the fight between K9 and the robot parrot work to adult eyes, but our kid completely loved it. When K9 later emerges with the dead parrot somehow stuck to his mouth, you couldn’t find a happier viewer among millions.

The other thing that alarmed our kid was the Captain’s plan to teleport his pirate planet to Earth and destroy it next. We’ll see the Cybermen make a similar threat a few months from now, and I bet he won’t worry half as much as he did tonight. So, grudging respect to Pennant Roberts tonight, as I am reminded again that the absolute best way to watch something with fresh eyes is to do it with your kid.

Oh, good grief. This can’t mean that he’s going to enjoy “Timelash,” can it?

(We’ll give Douglas Adams a chunk of the credit, though. The little dude has spent literally the last twenty minutes talking excitedly about teleporting planets. He’s going to absolutely love The Hitch-Hikers’s Guide to the Galaxy when his mother reads it to him later on down the line.)

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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (parts one and two)

You just can’t ever tell with kids, can you? I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t anything in tonight’s serial that would frighten our favorite seven year-old critic, but I was wrong. The plot did. Give this kid hideous slimy or robotic alien menaces bent on world conquest and he can handle it, but the climax of part two of this story reveals that the villains controlling the planet Zanak are in the big leagues. Their planet is hollow, and they teleport it around the galaxy, crushing slightly smaller planets inside of it and strip-mining them of resources. The planet’s population is kept stupid and ignorant, and left happy with streets full of trinkets like diamonds and rubies. Our son told us this was horrifying. He’s right, of course, but conceptual horror doesn’t usually bother him like a big rubber monster, you know?

This great big concept is the first contribution to Doctor Who from the beloved writer Douglas Adams, who was working on these four scripts at the same time he was writing the first radio series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This has led many, many people to consider and analyze the similarities in tone and humor between the two. “The Pirate Planet” is an incredibly witty story with our hero running rings around blustery and stupid villains with incredibly rich vocabularies. The Captain is more than a little similar to Hitch-Hiker‘s Vogon guard, the one who was not impressed by the hero humming Beethoven.

Well, the ones that talk, anyway. Bruce Purchase’s Pirate Captain is a hilarious joy, but he’s surrounded by some of the most incompetent nincompoops in the world of henchmen. These must be the most pathetic guards in all of Doctor Who, which is really saying something, and in part two they get involved in what must be the most pathetically-staged gunfight in all of Doctor Who, which is… also really saying something.

In fact, my only complaint about this story is the direction. After doing a pretty good job with “The Sun Makers” the previous season, Pennant Roberts really let everybody down with this one. It even opens with a laughably poor miniature set that is shot on videotape instead of film and so it succeeds in looking precisely like those phony little places from Far Out Space Nuts. This is kind of funny to me, because a month ago, I had intended to talk about how Roberts shot some scenes on film that really would have been much more effective on videotape, and with this season’s adventure, he got them the other way around.

In an interesting continuity note, Romana refers to herself as a Time Lord for the first time in this adventure. In the previous story, she identified as coming from the Doctor’s home planet, but didn’t use that title. She also mentions a father who bought her an air car for her 70th birthday. Time Lords very rarely ever mention relatives, but at this stage in the program, Romana’s a posh girl with a rich daddy. She’s probably been name-dropping for decades.

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