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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts seven and eight)

There is an obvious topic to discuss with this pair of episodes, but I don’t want to be obvious. I’ll talk about it next week.

Instead, I’ll note that, since we haven’t watched Flash Gordon yet – but we will – this was our son’s first opportunity to enjoy the splendor that is BRIAN BLESSED hollering at top volume. Between the tentpoles of Sil sniveling and King Yrcanos bellowing, I don’t like anything about this story, but our son enjoyed BLESSED tremendously. He’s a loud kid. Mostly polite and loving, but he sure does forget to use his indoor voice a lot. Now here’s the loudest person he’s ever seen, and nobody’s telling him to stop shouting. He laughed all the way through this, so the weird and unpleasant ending didn’t have the effect that I think the producers wanted with him. Of course, I have been hinting that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the truth.

Naturally, I showed him BRIAN BLESSED doing snooker commentary a few minutes later. I’d watch all sorts of dumb sports on television if BLESSED was doing the play-by-play. Bowling, Texas Hold-em, darts, soccer, you name it.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts five and six)

Well, I said before that Nabil Shaban’s wonderfully disgusting character Sil was the best thing about this story, just like he was in his first story, and I stand by that. But it is worth noting that BRIAN BLESSED is here to yell and bellow and bring the house down as a warrior king, and Christopher Ryan, the second Young Ones star to appear in this show in a two-year period, plays another slimy member of Sil’s species. The story’s a mess, but I like these two. And our son was, momentarily, really impressed by the very ’80s planet that the visual effects team dreamed up, with a dayglo-blue shore and crashing neon pink waves.

Episodes six through eight are the first example of Doctor Who using the format of an unreliable narrator. The Doctor has amnesia after getting his brain blasted in the cliffhanger to part five, allowing the evil Valeyard to screw with the “evidence” of the story and make him look like a coward who’s switched sides to save his own skin. So we never actually get to see what really happened on the planet Thoros Beta… probably. Unfortunately, Eric Saward, the script editor, didn’t make any of this at all clear and was in the process of finding himself a new career. He gave a breathtaking bridge-burner of an “exit interview” to the magazine Starburst, telling his side of a show in turmoil and airing all the dirty laundry he could find, making enemies of everybody at every level of the show’s production. The sad result is that this segment didn’t get the attention it needed before they taped it, so everything is confusing and honestly annoying to follow.

I paused between episodes to explain how we’ve already seen how the Valeyard can edit the material, and that we can’t trust anything that happens onscreen. I did this because I knew our son would absolutely hate seeing the Doctor turn evil and treat Peri so horribly. He did, scowling all the way through part six. Unfortunately, this is going to get worse before it gets better.

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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part two)

You know, that hung together better than I remembered it. Alexei Sayle’s still the best thing about it, and it would have been a whole lot more wonderful with more of him blowing up Daleks with his concentrated beam of rock and roll, but I think it gelled for me a bit more this time, for some reason. Sayle’s sonic cannon was, of course, our son’s favorite part of the story. His eyes lit up and he had the biggest smile you can imagine on his face when that first Dalek exploded.

Actually, one reason I enjoyed this more than I have previously is that I used to really, really loathe a character played by Jenny Tomasin, and thought the actress did a rotten job. I was wrong. Her character is a really tough one for an actor to play; she’s meant to be much more pathetic than endearing, and foolishly duped by everybody around her. But apart from one snickeringly bad line reading in part one when she bellows “Find the intruders!” I think Tomasin played this role extremely well, which can’t have been easy when you’ve got an amazing actor like Clive Swift literally brushing you aside. I may have mentioned before that my time talking with and observing the actors at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta gave me a newfound understanding of what actors have to do to make their characters work at all. I’m always glad of the opportunity to reconsider the opinions I held when I was even more stupid than I am now.

But right behind Sayle, there’s William Gaunt underplaying his role of a disgraced assassin from a noble order, and Eleanor Bron, who’s magical in anything. I love how Gaunt’s character acts like he is in complete control of the situation in Davros’s lab, and responds to any obstacle without taking an extra breath, just communicating with his eyes and piercing stares. And Colin Baker and Terry Molloy get one of the better Doctor-Davros arguments – easily the first good one since “Genesis,” honestly – as they debate Davros’s latest sick scheme.

We won’t wait fifteen months until starting the next season of Doctor Who like us poor folk had to do in the eighties… in fact, we’ll be back for more adventures in time and space in about eleven days. But first, something else, like the other two shows that we’re watching, that I’ve never seen before… stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part one)

I’ve never really enjoyed “Revelation of the Daleks,” which brings this disappointing season to an end, but I do enjoy just how weird it is. I mean, this is an extraordinarily weird 45 minutes. It barely has the Doctor or the Daleks in it. It’s mainly a bunch of Eric Saward characters alternately yelling at each other or mumbling underneath the incidental music, having their own adventure that doesn’t concern the Doctor at all. Parts of the story are sort of narrated by the wonderful comedian Alexei Sayle, playing an oddball DJ piping music and long-distance dedications to a city full of stiffs in suspended animation. I could have done with a whole lot more Alexei Sayle and a whole lot less of desperate double-acts arguing with each other.

Sayle’s role prompted me to pause, because it occurred to me that once again our son has no frame of reference for something I took for granted. We never listen to radio, so the world of Wolfman Jack or Casey Kasem is another planet he’s never heard of. They still have DJs on some stations, I think, but I’m at work when the local NPR / college radio hybrid gets to play music – Chattanooga is woefully short a WUOG or WSBF or WREK – so he doesn’t even get to hear college kids, never mind celebrities.

And of course, he didn’t recognize William Gaunt from The Champions as an assassin called Orcini. Say what you will about this weird story, it’s got a terrific cast that also includes Eleanor Bron and Clive Swift, who underplays the role of the funeral director amazingly well and is so entertaining. Terry Molloy is back as Davros, making him the first actor to play the role twice, and the story is directed by Graeme Harper, who had made the previous year’s “Caves of Androzani” look so good. He can’t save this one, but he fills it full of moments that are at least interesting. Next time, the Doctor will actually have something to do and I recall it becomes considerably more ordinary.

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Doctor Who: Timelash (part two)

“Timelash” is notorious for a very long bit of padding in the second episode. It was underrunning by about six minutes, so Eric Saward had to step in and write this really long interlude where the Doctor is trying to save the day, but Herbert, a stowaway from 1885, keeps interrupting him. Grown-up fans have always complained about the story stopping in its tracks for comedy, but never mind its bad reputation, because our son loved it. It’s just six minutes of the Doctor being incredibly bad tempered and growling. When Herbert reveals himself, the kid roared with laughter, knowing the Doctor would be furious. He enjoyed the whole adventure, but that scene was his favorite, so I guess that Saward knew what he was doing.

The story overall would probably never have been very good – this was clearly the season cheapie, with all the money spent jaunting to Spain for “The Two Doctors” – but it still strikes me as a massive missed opportunity. At its core, the plot is an interesting change from another story of vengeful psychopaths, and it’s one of the very first times that the show successfully used what would later be called “timey-wimey” stuff to advance the story. But it all sinks under a bunch of characters who might as well be named “Captain Exposition,” disinterested direction, and some really terrible guest performances, with Paul Darrow going for some award as the biggest ham on television that month.

We’re not out of the swamp yet, but it would be about 21 years before Doctor Who bored and annoyed me as much as this one. Things are about to get better.

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Doctor Who: A Fix With Sontarans

There were two big knock-on effects from the decision to start Colin Baker’s run of Doctor Who with his own adventure at the end of season 21 instead of a final-minute regeneration and a nine or twelve month break like it usually happens. First, Colin became the Doctor on all the merchandising immediately, which made for some very, very strange comics. Steve Parkhouse was scripting the monthly strip for Doctor Who Magazine and he suddenly had a new Doctor and no idea what his personality would be like.

You sometimes see people really praise the resulting run of comics – “Polly the Glot,” “Voyager,” and “Once Upon a Time Lord” – as though they were the high point of the strip. I’ve never been quite as wild about them myself, but the depiction of this brash and boisterous Doctor as a quiet and contemplative figure is unusual and effective, and the visuals are really something else. The run was drawn by John Ridgway. Later on in the strip, Ridgway would just provide pencils for Tim Perkins to ink and I’ve never been as interested in those, but the first two-thirds of the Colin series, with Ridgway’s beautiful inks, look amazing. It’s a pretty good run of stories overall, with a couple of Grant Morrison tales, and those first three in particular suggest a path the television adventures might have taken, with Colin Baker playing a Doctor far less garish. I’d certainly rather reread “Voyager” than watch most of these TV stories again.

The other big knock-on was that young Gareth Jenkins’ grandmother had time to knit a Sixth Doctor costume for him. Gareth, then eight years old, wrote into a popular BBC program where the host granted wishes, asking to meet the star of his favorite show. Script editor Eric Saward hammered out a seven minute adventure set in the TARDIS console room, Janet Fielding was asked to swing by Television Centre as Nicola Bryant was on vacation, and the two tall actors who wore those Sontaran suits with the ill-fitting collars were asked to bark out some menacing dialogue and die in a waterfall of green goo.

“A Fix With Sontarans” is Doctor Who aimed specifically at kids who dream of flying away in time and space with their hero. For adults, it’s just more of Eric Saward choosing to write nothing for the characters to say beyond insults and arguments. But for kids, it’s just perfect wish fulfillment. Our son thought this was completely wonderful, and the lucky sprog got to walk away with one of those big prop laser rifles. Our kid was jealous. Me too, come to think of it.

This little story is no longer commercially available. Some years later, after he died, a police investigation concluded that the host of the program, who had been one of the BBC’s biggest light entertainment celebrities for something like thirty years, had committed dozens of crimes against minors. None of the material that he hosted – including several hundred installments of Top of the Pops, where he had been one of the rotating emcees since the mid-sixties – is available any longer, and none of it can be repeated. “A Fix With Sontarans” was included as a bonus feature on the original edition of the DVD of “The Two Doctors.” When it was upgraded as a special edition with better picture and sound, “Sontarans” was omitted. So if you click the image above, you can go buy a copy of the “Voyager” comic instead.

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Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen (part two)

Once again, our son enjoyed this much, much more than I did. His favorite part came when the Doctor slides a volatile chemical into a corridor, leading a Cyberman to investigate. The chemical ignites shortly after contact with warm air, sending explosions and sparks everywhere. If you’re at the age where seeing Cybermen blow up is the greatest thing ever, then this show was made for you.

I enjoyed a short scene where Lytton introduces one of the alien Cryons to Brian Glover’s tough criminal character. The Cryon doesn’t understand Glover’s character’s slang – “minder” and “you winding me up?” – and it is kind of cute seeing Lytton patiently translate. For reasons he takes to his grave, Lytton decided not to tell the Doctor that he was working for the Cryons, and not the Cybermen. There’s not a lot more that they could have done with this character, but the writer certainly enjoyed him more than he did the Doctor and Peri.

The story assumes everybody in the audience has a well-thumbed copy of Jean-Marc Lofficier’s Doctor Who Programme Guide on the shelf. Since our son doesn’t have that book, he asked me to pause it because he couldn’t make sense of the Cybermen’s plan, which is basically “destroy Earth before the events of a previous television adventure happened.” He might not have the most developed sense of drama, but he’s savvy enough to know that “they intend to change history!” is a very, very bad thing!

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Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen (part one)

With season 22, Doctor Who was back in its old home of Saturday evenings, but with longer, forty-five minute episodes. Colin Baker got a run of six serials in this slot and some of them are a little entertaining. “Attack of the Cybermen” is credited as being written by Paula Moore, but it’s apparently a co-write between Eric Saward and two other parties. It brings back Saward’s character of the mercenary Commander Lytton, previously seen in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” and the scenes with him are by far the most interesting in the story.

There’s a really annoying sense of disconnect in this adventure. The stuff in London is shot on 16mm film and deals with Lytton and some other criminals prepping for a job to heist £10 million in diamonds. It’s incredibly watchable. They keep cutting back and forth with the Doctor and Peri arguing in the TARDIS. It’s not even remotely watchable.

But that’s the grown-up in me talking again. The Sixth Doctor is continuing to keep our son completely charmed. There’s a running gag about the ship’s Chameleon Circuit being repaired but still going wrong that he loved, and there’s just a hint of slapstick in the Doctor’s movements along with his bellowing. He got a huge laugh out of the Doctor almost stepping into an open hole in a scrap metal yard. He claims to hate the Cybermen, but for some reason, the Cybermen in this adventure are either the constant victims of lucky shots or they were built from scrap metal parts, because their heads get knocked off or they get shot and green goo goes spraying everywhere. It’s terrific television for under-tens.

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