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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: The Hand of Fear (parts three and four)

I’ve mentioned before how I enjoy seeing how directors would return to some of the same actors. Well, the alien Eldrad first emerges as a crystalline female played by Judith Paris, but once the Doctor and Sarah take “her” back to her home planet of Kastria, she reconstitutes herself into her original male body, played by Stephen Thorne. Director Lennie Mayne had used Thorne three years previously, as Omega in “The Three Doctors.” Thorne has such an amazing voice, but the writers certainly gave him a lot of boring dialogue. It’s all ranting and raving and “I! SHALL! BE! KING!” and conquering the universe and so on.

So, going back to my own childhood and watching Doctor Who on Atlanta’s WGTV, I wasn’t able to catch every one of the compilation movies the first time around because of family trips or whatever. So I missed “The Hand of Fear” and was confused the following week because Sarah wasn’t in it. Sarah gets a remarkably unique departure. She’s the only companion in the whole of the original series who the Doctor actually leaves behind.

In the story, it’s allegedly because the Doctor’s been summoned back to his home planet, Gallifrey, and he can’t take her with him. This kind of rings hollow in the first place because nothing was stopping him from coming back to Earth to pick her up, and in the second place because later companions would get to travel to Gallifrey without incident. So even though Sarah got to return onscreen twice in the eighties, lots of people have pointed out that something wasn’t right about that. Happily, thirty years after “The Hand of Fear,” Sarah returned for a third time in the episode “School Reunion,” and this was addressed.

“The Hand of Fear” is definitely among that pile of Who adventures that start a whole lot stronger than they end. Honestly, part three’s cliffhanger has the Judith Paris version of Eldrad shot by a booby-trap missile, and part four could have just been Eldrad dying, the Doctor and Sarah exploring the dead planet by themselves, and finally going home, and I’d have been happier with it without all the ranting and threats. Sarah’s departure is the core of the story, and the male Eldrad just gets in the way of it. It’s a wonderfully sad ending, and apparently Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen wrote the scene themselves.

Unfortunately, our son didn’t enjoy this story very much at all, because he said he didn’t understand why, despite the script spelling it out very clearly, the Doctor took Eldrad back to Kastria. He has this odd habit of vaguely grumbling “I didn’t understand what that was about,” rather than asking specific questions. Once we understood the issue, his mother gave him a recap and he seemed a little more satisfied, and he was pleased when I told him that we would see Sarah Jane Smith again.

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Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (parts one and two)

There’s a lot to like about “The Hand of Fear.” Since Tom Baker’s Doctor didn’t spend as much time on contemporary Earth as Pertwee did, it’s kind of nice to see him interacting with everyday people in 1976. There’s a lot of ordinary, everyday locations in this one: a quarry, a hospital, and a power plant. The Doctor doesn’t drive around in his old yellow roadster; instead he’s a passenger in somebody’s old Datsun or something. There is a lot of good location filming in the first half of this story, and the sets and even the choice of furniture – dig those awful plastic chairs! – make this feel more “real” than “The Android Invasion” or “The Seeds of Doom,” which were both allegedly contemporary Earth stories, did.

“The Hand of Fear” is a four-parter that was first shown in 1976. It was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and was the last serial directed by Lennie Mayne, who sadly died in a boating accident a few months later. Mayne cast one of his reliable go-to actors, Rex Robinson, for the third time, and it also has a terrific guest appearance by Glyn Houston, perhaps best known as Bunter in three of the BBC’s Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations, as the director of the power plant.

Everybody comments on how unusual and how real it is that Houston’s character gets a moment to himself, completely away from the drama of the story, to phone home and tell his wife goodbye when he thinks the nuclear plant will have a meltdown and explode soon. I think this was a great decision for the scriptwriters because part two of this story is incredibly repetitive, and it breaks up all the running up and down lots of corridors. Television adventure drama rarely takes the time to give minor characters little human moments like this. There never is time, because everything that happens needs to either serve the plot or serve the stars. It may be less than a minute of the episode, but somehow it works just perfectly and really elevates the story.

I doubt our son noticed. He seemed to enjoy this one. It wasn’t very scary, although the memorable visual of the hand coming to life gave him the creeps, as it should. That one shot of the hand in the box at the cliffhanger is a remarkably good effect. The other bits where it’s crawling along the floor are the standard yellow-or-green-screen chromakey, but when the hand first moves, it’s so darn good you’re forced to question how they did it.

While I saw the runaround and repetition of part two a little wearying, he got into it. The director tried to make the story seem urgent and desperate, and it really worked with him. Part two ends with everything exploding as the disembodied hand gets carried into the reactor core and he was excited. He says that he’s kind of scared about what’s going to happen, “because this is a very creepy one,” but he didn’t hide behind the sofa this morning, either.

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Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (parts three and four)

Our son says that he really enjoyed this story, which is a relief because it did leave him a little more confused than usual. In part three, the villains Federico and Hieronymous betray each other, and he didn’t get that at all. It’s not like he’s never seen bad guys turn on each other before, but we had to pause the story to help him through it.

We also had to pause it to underline exactly how serious this threat is: the Mandragora Helix’s plan is to conquer Earth during the Age of Enlightenment to keep the people superstitious and stupid. There’s a running gag that Leonardo da Vinci is around somewhere in the palace, but never in the same place as the Doctor. I have to say that the BBC’s resources never really convinced me that this was a palace at all, much less a great big shindig thrown for the coronation of the new ruler of a city-state, but the costumes certainly looked nice.

“The Masque of Mandragora” was the final Who serial written by Louis Marks, but he had a lot more work for the BBC ahead of him. For the next thirty years, he produced several prestigious series and serials for the BBC, several of which were shown in America on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. He oversaw two George Eliot adaptations, Silas Marner and Middlemarch. That one was probably one of the biggest hits for Masterpiece in the 1990s, though it seems to be forgotten today. Marks died in 2010.

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Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora (parts one and two)

We start season fourteen of Doctor Who with a serial written by Louis Marks. “The Masque of Mandragora” has never really thrilled me for some reason. It looks just wonderful. The location filming around Portmeiron, Wales, is great, and the costumes and the sets are terrific. The story takes place in 15th Century Italy, and the costume designer just had a ball making everything look good.

It’s got the debut of the dark wood-paneled TARDIS console room, which everybody loves. It’s full of good actors as well, including Tim Piggot-Smith and Gareth Armstrong as the Doctor’s two allies, and Norman Jones as one of the villains. Unfortunately, Jon Laurimore is stuck playing the tyrannical Count Federico, who’s one of those humorless baddies who does deeply stupid things simply because the script needs a villain to add some threats and delay the real plot. I think the writer had a similar problem with the character played by Prentis Hancock in his story “Planet of Evil” the year before.

But I guess my main problem is that the topline villain is a nebulous, formless, energy-thing called the Mandragora Helix. In the 1990s, when fanfic went pro and fans started writing Who novels for Virgin and, later, the BBC, everything synced with Lovecraft and Cthulu being trendy again, and so you had books where the Animus and the Nestene Consciousness and the Mandragora Helix and the like were all new names for what people who like that sort of thing call “Old Gods” like Nyarlathotep. The Virgin series was full of cranks like those. And virtual reality prisons. And cyberpunk. It was the 1990s. I get bored with baddies like those. I like villains with faces. The Mandragora Helix is just a boring enemy.

Speaking of faces, that brings us to our son’s principal observation, which is that Norman Jones’s bunch of villains wear some completely terrific masks. I never would have thought that “The Masque of Mandragora” was all that scary, certainly not compared to the wall-to-wall frights of the previous season, but the masks that the Cult of Demnos wear proved me wrong.

I’m not quite sure I believe his reasoning, though. He told us “Those masks made me think of the Drashigs from ‘Carnival of Monsters’,” he said, “because of the open mouths and the teeth.” Since the Drashigs remain the undisputed champions of the Scariest Thing He’s Ever Seen competition, anything that reminds him of them is cause for alarm. I don’t see the resemblance myself, but, eh, kids.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (parts five and six)

So season thirteen concluded with a bang and a joke. This story was too scary for our son to ever want to see again – that’s this season in a nutshell – but he enjoyed the explosions and the Doctor and Sarah sharing a smile at the coda. I actually gave him a heads-up that the composting machine that frightened him, and absolutely everybody else who watched this, in episode four would be back to menace Sarah tonight, but that she’d be fine. The scene really is an amazingly tense one, with Tony Beckley’s character doomed, but he and Tom Baker fighting with amazing desperation.

The entire production is just terrific. I really enjoy the visuals and the music, and how the actors are playing this situation entirely believably. They’re trapped and terrified and I think this really rubbed off on our son. This and “Pyramids of Mars” are just wall-to-wall shocks. What a great, great season. Except for the last half of “The Android Invasion,” but 24 out of 26 episodes is an excellent run.

Speaking of “The Android Invasion,” I was saying how we wuz robbed of a farewell scene where the Doctor tells his friends that he’s moving on. Isn’t it strange that when the Doctor escapes from Harrison Chase’s estate, it’s to contact Sir Colin of the World Ecology Bureau? You and I know the production reason is “Because they’re paying that actor already and built the set for his office,” but he doesn’t make a beeline for a phone to call Harry, Benton, or Colonel Faraday. We hear that the Brigadier is in Geneva (still, or again, I wonder) and a Major Beresford is in charge, but why doesn’t the Doctor phone his other friends? The story opens with the Doctor already in the UK and visiting the World Ecology Bureau on somebody’s recommendation. Have he and Sarah been in England for some time, and he’d already told his friends goodbye and turned in the keys to his old lab? Is that why he wants to rush to Sir Colin, because he didn’t want to phone Harry a couple of days after figuring he was gone for good?

Anyway, a couple of goodbyes to note this time. This is the final Doctor Who story to be directed by the great Douglas Camfield, and the last of two to be written by Robert Banks Stewart. He’d go on to create two extremely popular crime dramas for the BBC, Shoestring and Bergerac. Camfield directed three episodes of Shoestring along with several other notable shows over the next eight years, including an eight-hour adaptation of Beau Geste, episodes of The Sweeney, The Professionals, and Danger UXB, and the acclaimed miniseries The Nightmare Man. Readers may recall that Camfield had a heart condition that waylaid him during production of the Who serial “Inferno” in 1970. He died of a heart attack in 1984, aged 52. When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand the fuss about Camfield. When I later felt the energy and the tension that crackles through his stories, I got it. He brought out some of the very best performances from all of the actors and really made these last two serials in particular something very special. Doctor Who often rises above the quality of its production, but it would be many years before the show would have a director who could kick things up quite as high as Douglas Camfield could do it.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who for all those in the audience with a nervous disposition, but stay tuned! We’re planning to start season fourteen in just a couple of weeks!

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (parts three and four)

The story moves back to England for its middle parts, making this kind of unique in the seventies Earth stories in that it’s an actual globetrotter. Most alien invasions of the planet head straight for the UK. This one came to Antarctica tens of thousands of years ago.

And once the show comes back to familiar ground, the horror quotient just skyrockets. Our son absolutely hated the cliffhanger to part three, when it looks like the Krynoid pod is going to infect Sarah, and part four is just wall-to-wall terror. The big composting machine had him running upstairs to his own room. He came back down just in time to see the infected man, Keeler, lose every trace of his humanity. It’s a terrific shock moment, with the butler dropping his tray at the sight of a huge, angry, green monster in the room. He bolted upstairs again.
“Yeah, I’m not surprised. That really was a scary scene,” his mother said.

Conventional wisdom has it that the larger size Krynoid, which is a throbbing green mass about twelve feet high, isn’t the most convincing monster, but our son swears that’s the scariest moment yet. This is a great story, even if our son’s fear factor meant that we were a little bit distracted.

In lighter news, Sylvia Coleridge joins the cast as a daffy old lady, because that’s what she specialized in playing. There’s a repeat of the “And the music’s terrible” gag that was used in the previous story. Then, the Doctor was sick of the Sisterhood singing their hit “Sacred Fire, Sacred Flame.” This time, Tony Beckley’s character is playing Chick Corea’s keyboard parts from Miles Davis’s 1970 Fillmore West show because he thinks it will help his plants grow. Don’t believe me? Compare Beckley’s noise in that scene to “Masqualero” on Black Beauty. He’s lucky his plants don’t strangle him to death.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (parts one and two)

Lots of little things help us suspend disbelief in television, and one of them is that the protagonist and his antagonists need to be participating in the same balancing act. Here’s an illustration: there have been all sorts of westerns at all levels of melodrama. Marshal Dillon from Gunsmoke needs a certain type of villain who plays by the rules of his world’s narrative, and Bret Maverick needs a different type of villain for his, and the Man With No Name needs another one for his. If you break those rules and give one of those heroes a villain who plays the game a different way, the narrative will jar. It’s not only the mix in appropriate acting styles for the production, the whole world will seem off.

That’s what happens when the Doctor meets Scorby, a henchman played by John Challis. You’ll occasionally find critiques of “The Seeds of Doom” that say it feels wrong. That’s because Scorby has wandered in from an entirely different program. The Doctor has met “ruthless” characters before, but they’re Doctor Who ruthless. The Doctor disarms them with witty banter and makes them respond with television tough-guy language like “Have a care, Doctor!” Even while that ruthless henchman is pointing a gun at him, the Doctor is the hero who’s still in charge waiting for the last minute rescue. (Think Mailer back in “The Mind of Evil” for a good example.) This is the Doctor’s show, and these are the rules of this world.

But Scorby doesn’t play by those rules. The Doctor quips and jokes in the face of death and it doesn’t work. Scorby might have come from The Sweeney, where a hero figure like the Doctor wouldn’t be any more successful than DI Regan would have been at foiling any phase of the Kraals’ invasion. And since Scorby has the upper hand, he ignores all the Doctor’s tricks and leaves with Sarah – not as a hostage, just to kill her after she leads him to another point in the plot – and the Doctor, helpless and desperate, is reduced to screaming after him. It’s an amazing moment, but anybody who says the show feels “wrong” is quite correct. I think this is the reason why.

Anyway, our son remembered that an earlier story was called “The Seeds of Death,” and he decided, in his inimical fashion, that the two stories would be very similar, except the first one would have more death and less doom, and this one would have more doom and less death. He’s actually right, because the tone of the two productions couldn’t be more different. Tom Baker is playing the Doctor as genuinely scared for the first time, and the whole thing, even with the horrible plant-man stomping around an Antarctic research base, feels doom-laden, but it won’t have quite the body count of the Patrick Troughton story.

“The Seeds of Doom,” written by Robert Banks Stewart, is another one with a great reputation for scaring younger viewers, but fortunately ours is actually young enough to not really be bothered by the body horror aspect of it. Nor was he concerned by the exceptionally grisly suggestion in part one that a character’s arm might have to be amputated. Actually, the really grisly aspect was convincing a character that he has no choice but to perform that surgery, but that’s more frightening to adults! Both cliffhangers had him hiding, but these are more traditional monster scares.

Once again, and sadly for the final time, the direction and the music are from the dream team of Douglas Camfield and Geoffrey Burgon. In the role of master villain Harrison Chase, whom the Doctor has yet to meet, it’s the great Tony Beckley, who had played Camp Freddie in The Italian Job, which is probably another reason why I should show that fun film to our son when he’s a little older!

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