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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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Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius (parts three and four)

Back when we watched “Planet of Evil,” I wrote about the Radio Times 20th Anniversary Special. When my mate Blake got hold of a copy, I asked him “What do you mean there are only five Doctors? I’m telling you there are at least a dozen!” And according to “The Brain of Morbius,” there are. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes decided to do a big, weird, wonderful retcon and introduce eight Doctors prior to the one we’d previously called the first.

The situation is that the Doctor and Morbius are having a mind-bending challenge, and the faces of the three previous actors to play the Doctor pop up in the space between them while Morbius taunts “Back, back to your beginnings! How long have you lived?” So we see Pertwee, Troughton, and Hartnell again, followed by eight members of the production team and some BBC directors, including, cheekily, Hinchcliffe and Holmes themselves. They played the fourth and seventh Doctors.

I think that when I first saw this, I just took it as new information, not that I was actually counting faces, just learning that there was this thing called regeneration. I didn’t question the number.

It didn’t take, but the show didn’t actually formally retcon this retcon for another seven years. So while we all know and love Tom Baker as “The Fourth Doctor”™, as far as 1976 goes, the production team was actually thinking of him as the Twelfth! Nothing onscreen actually contradicts this until “Mawdryn Undead” in 1983, which returns things to normality and flatly states that Peter Davison’s Doctor is the fifth one. And then the same story goes and screws up the UNIT chronology.

But one thing the show’s never actually told us – and why should it bother? – is whose faces are they, if not the Doctor’s? I asked our son “Who were those eight other faces?” and he immediately replied “Morbius’s faces!” as though I had not been paying attention. That’s one of a few fan explanations. I figure that if it’s an explanation a six year-old can provide and get behind, then it’s probably the best answer!

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Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius (parts one and two)

I absolutely love “The Brain of Morbius.” It has a really epic feel to it, since we’re dealing with mythology in a very big and very new way. The Sisterhood of Karn is introduced here. They’re the first alien species that is ever mentioned as having any kind of alliance or friendship or actually any kind of relationship whatsoever with the Time Lords. And I love how it deals with an ancient Time Lord criminal, a powerful cult leader called Morbius. It’s done so well, and with such conviction, that it feels like everybody involved is shaking the foundations of the program for the first time since “The Three Doctors,” and doing it far more effectively than that serial did.

In this household, mine isn’t quite the majority view. Marie is aware of the Sisterhood from their brief appearances later in the series, and she’s not impressed with them. I can certainly see her point. Even understanding that this was the seventies, there’s an angle to the Sisterhood that doesn’t really sit well from a feminist, scientist perspective. The show, at this stage, tells us that the Time Lords are all male super-scientific, sterile, cloistered space monks who see all and know all, and the Sisterhood are the all female witches in the woods who worship a sacred flame, and when the Doctor tells them there’s probably a sound geological explanation about their flame dying, they don’t want to listen, they want to sacrifice him.

If your knowledge of this serial doesn’t extend much beyond “Yeah, I watched that one on PBS in the eighties and I don’t remember the gender politics because I thought this was the Frankenstein one,” well, then you’re in our son’s boat. Last night, we talked about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, to get him ready both for this story and a forthcoming Avengers installment. He’s familiar with the look of Frankenstein’s monster, of course, from Monster Squad and Mad Monster Party? and probably several other modern children’s programs, but not really the mythology of the story itself and the grave-robbing aspect. The awesome Philip Madoc plays the Dr. Frankenstein character, assembling a new body from corpses, and his Igor-like assistant resembles the classic look of the creature, with a shambling walk, corpse-like pallor and heavy brow.

In fact, it’s a lot more like Frankenstein than the writer intended. Terrance Dicks had written a story which inverted the classic tale and had one or more robots building a man, but Robert Holmes rewrote it with a more traditional spin. Dicks, angered, telephoned Holmes and told him to take his name off it. “Just give it some bland pseudonym,” he shouted. He sat down to watch the finished product, saw it credited to “Robin Bland,” laughed, and forgave his old colleague.

But I said mine wasn’t the majority view. This one is, as I suspected, scaring the daylights out of our kid, though nowhere near at “Pyramids” levels. He really got into it, though! When the Sisters teleport the TARDIS to their shrine, he called out “Poop!” He was shooting finger guns at everybody being mean to our heroes, and leapt out of his skin at the cliffhanger to part one. Mercifully, I told him up front that something bad is going to happen to Sarah – she gets blinded – but it will turn out okay.

After the story, he sat down to a couple of cookies and told us “The first story that has another Time Lord is ‘The War Games.’ That’s the last story of the second Doctor.” We were mighty impressed. I didn’t want to push the issue by reminding him that Philip Madoc was also in that story, so we just congratulated him on his good memory. (And yes, he’s not quite correct. I did tell him once about the Monk, from William Hartnell’s time, but the War Chief and those three fellows in part ten of “The War Games” were the first other Time Lords he’s actually seen!)

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts three and four)

Good grief, what a mess. The only reasons to watch the second half of this story are to see Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen rising way above the material with wit and charm and sparkles in their eyes, and to say goodbye to Ian Marter and John Levene, who make their final appearances here. It’s the last UNIT story of the seventies – and no, it’s not an “epilogue,” it’s got precisely the same number of regular UNIT characters as “The Invasion” or “The Silurians,” even if Nicholas Courtney isn’t in it – but because nobody making the program had definitively decided that, we didn’t get a proper goodbye to any of the characters. The Fourth Doctor says many times that he hates goodbyes, but audiences kind of like them. It would have been nice to let the Doctor actually tell his old friends that he isn’t going to be their scientific adviser anymore, shake hands, and wave farewell.

Subbing for Courtney in part four is Patrick Newell as Colonel Faraday. I’m predisposed to like Newell, a fine character actor best known for the recurring role of Mother in the Tara King years of The Avengers, but the script doesn’t give him anything interesting to do and the only idea anybody had for him seems to be “don’t imitate Courtney.” When some anonymous soldiers turn up at the end of the season with UNIT badges – now that really is the epilogue, not this – Colonel Faraday isn’t with them. Corporal Bell had more screen time than Faraday.

As for the rest of it, it’s all just bad guys talking tough and not staying around to see the trapped hero’s doom, unbelievably gullible patsies who believe the best, that sort of thing. Mission Control is a blue chromakey screen hung in front of a black curtain while four technicians act like they’re in a Gerry Anderson show and spend about a full minute counting things down instead of showing us anything interesting. That’s because the visual effects are either more stock footage of American rockets, or director Barry Letts returning to his weird old trick of blue-screening actors in front of a photograph. Doctor Who was a low budget program, true, but this is one of the most egregious examples in the 1970s of just plain looking cheap.

And then there’s the eyepatch. I did warn my wife that one of the all-time “oh, baloney” moments is in part four. I think that somewhere, something went awry in rehearsals and they didn’t have time to do this right. Twice, the Doctor tells Milton Johns’ character “You’ve been brainwashed,” and I am perfectly willing to accept that part of that brainwashing was making the man think he lost an eye in a rocket crash. That would have been just fine. Except what we see on screen is Johns removing his eyepatch, and, instead of forcing himself to fight the brainwashing and the illusion and realize, dramatically, that his eye really is there, he just takes off the patch and boom! There’s his eye! Styggron has been lying all this time!

And except for there was no reason whatsoever for Styggron to make him think he was missing an eye. It is utterly irrelevant to the drama except to give the character a chance to realize the Kraals are evil, and to make him look like Scott McCloud, Space Angel, when he’s in his astronaut suit and helmet.

Our son wasn’t wowed by this deeply dumb moment, but he did enjoy this story much more than he was willing to admit yesterday. This is definitely Doctor Who for six year-olds. He confessed that he really wasn’t scared by the first half (we knew) and gave this a mostly thumbs-up. He didn’t like that there was an android duplicate of the Doctor, but he loved our hero having a brawl with it.

With that in mind, as I mentioned, this is the final appearance in the show for John Levene and Ian Marter. Levene largely left the acting business after this and has lived in California since the early 1990s. I was surprised to see that he made an appearance in Beetleborgs, one of those Haim Saban programs that repurpose Japanese sci-fi teevee footage into an otherwise American show. Marter appeared frequently on television and in movies in the 1970s and early 1980s and also became a writer. He specialized in both Who books for Target and, under the pen name Ian Don, other novelizations of feature films like Splash and the dinosaur movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. He passed away of a heart attack on his 42nd birthday in 1986.

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts one and two)

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Well, when I was in middle school, several of us were making our own sort-of versions of these. They were called Gamebooks, and my mate Blake, who you may recall from previous chapters about Doctor Who, developed them alongside his classmates Nathan Mize and Mark Hester. In a Gamebook, the front of a sheet of notebook paper was a densely-packed chapter of an adventure, with three options about what you would do next on the bottom of the page. You turned it over to see what would happen: usually, two options would have you dying, and only one left you able to proceed to the next chapter.

They started making these in early 1983, about a year before WGTV started showing Who, and some of the rest of us started copying them and eventually began writing our own stories. Probably close to a dozen of us kids made these over a three year period. They passed the time in class when we were bored and weren’t in the mood to draw comics. Over time, we’d change the rules and the format a little, incorporating coin tosses, die rolls, hit points, and alternating storylines, like the end of chapter one’s options might resolve to death, proceeding to chapter two, or proceeding to chapter three.

I mention all this because, inevitably, I made a sprawling Doctor Who Gamebook from my memories of the first seven stories that I saw, starting the Gamebook the morning after I first saw this in 1984. Sadly, this no longer exists – even more sadly, literally hundreds of pages of Who comics that I made between the ages of 13 and 15 do exist, and no, you can’t see them – but I mention it today because I clearly remember two key points about it.

One, I could not draw a Kraal to save my life. Granted, I was 12, and couldn’t draw much of anything to save my life, but I redid that dumb drawing of Styggron six or seven times and just could not do it.

Two, this Gamebook went on forever, with seven alternating storylines. Chapter 19 might have been a “Pyramids of Mars” chapter, with the results taking you to chapter 27 or 32, and chapter 20 might have continued the “Genesis of the Daleks” story, with results taking you to chapter 23 (where you’d reach the same grisly end that a wrong decision in chapter 15 might have sent you), 24, or 31. We didn’t write these things “by story,” we wrote them literally one chapter after the next, so there wasn’t any advance planning. And somehow or another, the Doctor Who Gamebook concluded after ninety-some or a hundred-odd chapters, and I hadn’t included a way out of the “Android Invasion” storyline. Every single option the Doctor had eventually led him to his death, because I didn’t include a chapter where he could win. It wasn’t the Daleks or Sutekh who finally killed our hero, it was the silly old Kraals!

Well, if you’ve been following along linearly instead of just reading the Doctor Who chapters, you may recall that our son needed a little light adventure after the horrors of the last couple of Who stories. “The Android Invasion” is perfectly placed for that. It sticks out like a sore thumb in season thirteen because it’s comparatively light and tame, and because the Kraals really aren’t much of a threat. The adventure was written by Terry Nation, and it was directed, for the last time, by former producer Barry Letts.

And, because our son has decided to be contrary, he’s telling us that this story is even scarier than “Pyramids.” We don’t believe him, because he isn’t reacting the same way that he does to real frights, but he’s chosen to insist that the situation is unbearably creepy and the Kraals are terrifying. The story is the sort of thing that Steed and Mrs. Peel might have investigated, before it takes an extraterrestrial turn, anyway, and he’s seen them tackle something similar twice already, so it isn’t that creepy. Deserted English village, weird clues about what’s going on, like brand new currency and telephones that only work sporadically… yes, this is very much like what Terry Nation concocted for programs like The Avengers or The Persuaders!, but bent into the Doctor Who shape.

One thing that I will give our son, though, is that he really didn’t enjoy most of the classic story from season seven, “Inferno,” because of the scenes where the Doctor confronts villainous duplicates of his friends. There’s a little echo of that here, as RSM Benton and Lt. Harry Sullivan appear to be working for the bad guys, but the Doctor figures it out at the end of part two. He and Sarah aren’t on Earth. It’s not just the white-suited “mechanics” that are robots. Everybody is, including Benton and Harry, and this village is a simulation, a testing site for the Kraals’ invasion of Earth.

It’s going to get a little bogged down and really silly in the second half, but I enjoyed these two parts quite a lot, despite some dopey plot holes. It’s a good example of the atmosphere being so entertaining that you can overlook the story’s minor deficiencies. Unless you just want to absolutely insist that you’re scared, anyway.

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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts three and four)

Our son was still about as frightened as a kid could be during the second half of this adventure, so much so that we had to pause during part four to get him to calm down. He was distracting himself from the horror onscreen, which reached new depths when Sutekh took control of the Doctor’s mind, first by firing an imaginary gun at Sutekh with a growl, and then by, I’m sorry to say, belching. And then giggling about it. You try to be understanding. He is just six and needed a distraction from one of his heroes being used as a plaything by the most evil and powerful creature in the cosmos. But man, was it an obnoxious mood killer!

Anyway, I think there’s an unheralded moment in this story. I think this is the first time, at least the first in quite a while, that evil forces take control of the TARDIS. I remember the villains came on board, briefly, in “The Enemy of the World” and in “The Claws of Axos,” but is this the first occasion where something as awful as this happens? It really adds to the feeling of gloom.

I think it’s an absolutely terrific production. Many people call it one of their favorite Doctor Who stories from the era for good reason. There are a few brief moments of sparkling wit among the incredibly high stakes, and Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are fantastic together, especially in part three when the Doctor shows no emotion at all when Michael Sheard’s character is found to be dead, and Sarah starts to lose her temper with his dispassionate lack of what she starts to call “humanity” before checking herself. It’s scary and exciting, and people love it to pieces for a reason.

Hopefully the next story won’t have our son too terrified, but I’m a little concerned about the one after that…!

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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts one and two)

The third saddest child I think I’ve ever seen would be our son, tonight, right after the cliffhanger to part two of “Pyramids of Mars.” He didn’t completely break down, but his lower lip trembled more than I’ve seen it in a while. Almost frozen with fear, he huddled beneath his security blanket and said “I need a hug.” Thumbs were definitely down. “Pyramids of Mars” is the scariest thing ever.

The first and second saddest children I think I’ve ever seen would be his older brother and sister, who saw this story in late 2003 or early 2004. They did indeed completely break down. There was screaming and there were tears and then there were two kids in bed with me.

Even worse, I didn’t have this story in serial version at the time, I had a VHS copy of the compilation movie that was shown on public television. So these robot mummies that have indiscriminately killed everybody they’ve come across in the grounds of this old priory in 1911 and are completely unstoppable come charging into the lodge after – unbelievably – crushing a poacher to death between their chests, they smash the Doctor to the ground, kick the furniture over, and are about to strangle Sarah as the music swells. And, since I had no other way to do it, I just pressed stop in the middle of the mayhem. Screams.

So “Pyramids of Mars,” which was written by Robert Holmes and directed by the brilliant Paddy Russell, has a reputation for being just about the perfect example of seminal, classic, scary Doctor Who. It’s the first time that the show consciously decides to be a Hammer horror film in the classic style with a sci-fi sheen. It’s mummies coming to life in a big old house in 1911, but they’re the robotic servants of the phenomenally powerful Sutekh, an alien who has been paralyzed in an Egyptian tomb for thousands of years. The Mars bit comes because the prison has two parts: the force field that keeps Sutekh motionless is on another planet, to keep anybody on Earth from screwing with it. But his jailers didn’t shut off their prisoner’s mind, and as soon as one of those rich Englishmen showed up to rob tombs in the name of archaeology, Sutekh took control of him and set the man and his robots to work freeing him from his prison.

But the sci-fi stuff is darn near irrelevant. The whys really, really aren’t important, because this is about killer mummies in the woods and evil servants bringing Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity:

Bringing this to life (ha!), you’ve got Bernard Archard playing the archaeologist as a walking corpse, and Michael Sheard as his unfortunate scientist brother. Peter Copley is another scientist who has a thing or two to say, sir, about all this unpleasantness before he gets killed. The sets are amazing, and the location filming is just terrific. Tom Baker is on fire in this story, as the Doctor knows that he’s up against the greatest threat that he’s ever faced, something that will change the course of history and destroy all life on Earth in 1911 unless he can find a way to stop it.

Incidentally, for those mildly curious about these things, this story is the one that emphatically – and repeatedly – finally puts a firm date on the “present day” of Doctor Who. It’s five years ahead of the broadcast date: 1980. This will later get retconned. Some of us find this terribly amusing and entertaining. About nine people lose sleep over it. They all have book deals.

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

“Planet of Evil” is definitely in that large segment of Doctor Who that starts strong and peters out. One problem is that the serial’s star is the jungle planet, and it’s largely absent from the second half, with the action set on a very boring and beige spaceship. The other problem, and I do hate picking on an actor, is the character that the unfortunate Prentis Hancock is forced to play. There are military idiots, and then there’s Commander Salamar, who doesn’t even have the decency to be written as losing his grip or even remotely sympathetic. If we felt sorry for a man in over his head, that would be one thing, but Salamar is just an incompetent jerk. Nobody could play the part well. Hancock didn’t have a prayer of making this character work.

Worse, a huge hunk of Salamar’s boneheaded military tough guy act is just there to get himself killed and pad episode four out, because this story just plain runs out of plot. Interestingly, we asked our son in between episodes what he thought, and he actually saw where this was going. There are two anti-matter beings, the big weird one on the jungle planet, and the werewolf creature that Frederick Jaeger’s character is becoming. Our son believed that Jaeger was the more frightening threat, because he was going to turn into a weird video-effects beast: “He’s going to change and be like that creature on the planet!” Thanks to Commander Salamar’s stupidity, he does, giving the story about fourteen more minutes of action.

Our son definitely had fun being frightened by this one. He told us that it was really, really, really scary. “Three scarys?” asked his mother. “No, four,” he replied. “Three isn’t enough!”

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