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

You may not believe this, but for me, the most memorable moments in “Planet of Fire” aren’t actually Nicola Bryant’s scenes in her bikini, delightful though those all-too-short scenes are. It’s not even the surprising – and surprisingly sad – farewell to Kamelion, as the robot begs for death and the Doctor obliges him. It’s not even anything to do with the terrific Peter Wyngarde, because he is so amazingly wasted in a role that just about anybody his age could have played.

No, the best part of “Planet of Fire” is the cliffhanger to part three and the great little bitchfest between the Master and Peri. After a third episode that’s even more boring than I remembered, it ends with the terrific surprise that the Master has accidentally shrunk himself and has been controlling Kamelion from a little control room about the size of a shoeshine boy’s box. This shocked our son so much that he fumbled his exclamation, shouting “What the world – wide – world?!” as the credits rolled. In part four, Peri gets a great moment when the Master, having scurried to his ship’s console and hidden inside, continues threatening her and she’s not having it. “You come out here and say that,” she shouts, and we all laughed. The scene honestly isn’t very well staged, but Anthony Ainley and Nicola Bryant sure did play it well.

But there’s another interesting thing about “Planet of Fire,” and that’s the departure of Turlough. All along, he’s felt like the producer and writers had no idea what they wanted to do with this character, and some of what’s revealed here seems very, very contradictory to what they were saying about him just months previously. Turlough was apparently a junior military officer on the losing side of a civil war on the planet Trion. So he’s presumably older than I thought, which makes his apparent “incarceration” in a boarding school even more ridiculous.

This is what they do with military prisoners on Trion: sentence them to go to school on less developed planets, where they will steal cars and pester the unpopular kids, under the watchful eye of a “strange solicitor” in London? Honestly, even knowing already about Turlough’s nonsensical past, it makes even less sense watched cohesively. It’s an early example of what would later exasperate me about The X Files or Lost. If you come up with the story in the first place, instead of inventing something later on to link all the jigsaw pieces together, it stands a much better chance of making sense!

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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts one and two)

Peter Grimwade’s “Planet of Fire” is the third Doctor Who story in a row to elicit just a shrug, but man alive, this one should have been better. There’s location filming in Lanzarote helmed by Fiona Cumming, a great guest star, errrm, the Master and Kamelion but never mind, and the debut of a new companion. It’s Peri, who becomes the first American to travel in the TARDIS.

I won’t hear a bad word about the actress who plays Peri. Her name is Nicola Bryant, and not only is she a perfectly good actress – and Peri gets a few really great scenes in later stories – she’s a fabulous ambassador for Doctor Who. Nobody’s paying her to be a positive force in fandom. This is a show she left thirty-plus years ago, and she’s still singing its praises and welcoming new actors to the family. (Plus, if you like dogs, she’s a great advocate for animal welfare and is always sharing pictures of her family pets on Twitter!)

But because I contradict myself and contain multitudes, I can call myself a fan of Nicola Bryant and also think that casting a British actress while claiming the new character was meant to appeal to the show’s new American audience was an unusual decision. (See the comments for more on that topic.) Peri’s always divided opinions. I bet that for every person I’ve ever met who liked Peri, I’ve met five who just spit nails at the mention of her name. That said, I have always wondered how the character would have gone over had the BBC found a way to get a known American actress, such as, say, Lisa Whelchel, who was Blair on The Facts of Life, to play Peri?

I was keen to get more input from my son into this critical situation, but he had a very long day, was very over-tired, and his initially pleasant surprise that Kamelion was actually present in this story eventually turned sour when the Master turned up as well. He didn’t have an opinion about Peri and I don’t think he paid very much attention to part two of this story at all.

Joining the regular cast in Lanzarote, there are a few fellows in old-fashioned robes, chief among them the great Peter Wyngarde. Unfortunately, Wyngarde is playing another dreary religious lunatic. You don’t suppose all these prophecies about a strange being called Logar are going to have a scientific explanation in the final episode, do you? Stopping Nicola Bryant from being the only woman with a speaking part, Barbara Shelley is here as well, but she doesn’t have very much to do. She’s so irrelevant to the plot that she just gets to appear in the studio material back in London, having missed out on the trip to Lanzarote.

Well, hopefully our son will wake up for part three, and it won’t be as much of a snooze fest as I remember. Fingers crossed!

Photo credit (Lisa Whelchel): https://www.pinterest.com/mercyjacobs/

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Doctor Who: Enlightenment (parts three and four)

On one end of the spectrum, there’s that run of Doctor Who stories in 2013 which is all about the mystery of Clara, the mystery of Clara, the mystery of Clara. On this other end in 1983, you’ve got this seventeenish year-old alien who was hanging out in a posh private school and making secret murder contracts with immortal evildoers and practically nothing whatever was mentioned about it. I just can’t help but feel there’s a comfortable medium somewhere between them.

As annoying as it got in the spring of 2013 having every single story revolving around the Doctor investigating what his companion is up to and who she really is, it was still preferable to the cone of silence that was dumped on Turlough. This could have been so interesting. There are whacking great chunks of “Terminus” where Tegan and Turlough literally have nothing to do because the plot is happening elsewhere, but instead of writing some dialogue about this new character, all they say is “we’ve got to get out of here.” All of “Terminus” was a missed opportunity, but I’ll go to my grave thinking they could have improved things by having the two just sidelined and waiting and talking. “So where are you from, and what were you doing on Earth?” Even if Turlough didn’t want to answer these questions – I suspect that nobody had really bothered at this point to figure them out yet – why wasn’t the incredibly inquisitive Tegan asking them?

There are a few scenes in “Enlightenment” where Turlough does seem to act like a cowardly kid around seventeen years old. Usually, he’s not depicted that way. He’s a nebulous early-twentysomething in the hands of the scriptwriters, and just as every subsequent adventure is going to forget that this one ends with Turlough asking the Doctor to take him back to his home planet, every subsequent adventure is going to forget that the character is a teenager.

I shouldn’t complain. The program is just about to forget a character entirely. You want to talk about slapdash…

Fans sometimes debate whether the Doctor knew that Turlough was in league with the Black Guardian, and whether the Doctor had the right to put Tegan and Nyssa in such danger by bringing him on board without telling them his suspicions. I kind of like the friction between the Doctor and Turlough, and at least it gave Davison, who was very, very frustrated by the experience of making the show, something different to do.

I think the problem is that “Enlightenment” doesn’t have a payoff. We can guess that the Doctor knew the Black Guardian was behind this from the beginning and had taken lots of steps that we didn’t see to ensure his enemy would lose. I’ll find a thing or ten to complain about Steven Moffat’s six seasons when we get there, but credit where it could be due: Moffat would have made the end of “Enlightenment” completely spectacular, and Davison could have played the hell out of a tables-turning scene where the Doctor reveals that he was steps ahead of his enemy the whole time.

Instead, the Doctor just stands there. It’s not an impressive ending.

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Doctor Who: Enlightenment (parts one and two)

Our son has grasped the existential horror behind Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” quite well, I think. “They scoop out the memories of the people on the ship the same way we scoop ice cream out of a bowl and eat it!” He’s really enjoying the story. Part one ends with a terrific cliffhanger revelation, and the whole story is built around mystery, so it’s got his brain working overtime.

“Enlightenment” is the first story in the Doctor Who canon to be written and directed by women. It was Clegg’s only script for the program, but one of several serials in the early eighties that Fiona Cumming helmed. Familiar faces in the cast include Tony Caunter as one of the crew of this strange Edwardian-era racing yacht and Keith Barron as its captain.

I’ve always thought this was a good story, but not an especially gripping or thrilling one, so I’m glad that our son’s enjoying it, and giving the Black Guardian an appropriate level of evil eye action. But as much as he enjoyed the first cliffhanger, the second one fell flat. It should have been a memorable one – Turlough leaps to his apparent death rather than being stranded for all eternity on a spaceship he can never leave – but our son remembered that a character had literally just explained there’s an energy screen keeping them safe. “He’ll just land on the screen,” he interjected. As it will turn out, he doesn’t, but I’ve watched this a dozen times and never caught that.

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Doctor Who: Snakedance (parts three and four)

We had a theory that as the story went on, our son would be less creeped out and frightened by “Snakedance,” and when the Doctor wins, everything would be just fine. Didn’t happen. To my surprise, he remained worried by this story right through the end, spending most of part three on his mom’s lap, and he was still so bothered that he insisted on bringing both his security blanket and his favorite stuffed animal to dinner.

“In fairness,” I said, “we are going out after dark.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “I don’t like dark and I don’t like snakes!”

Never mind him. I think “Snakedance” is terrific. It’s one of my favorite stories of the eighties. I really like Martin Clunes’ bored diplomat, and I love the relationship he has with his smothering mother, who gives him a believably obnoxious passive-aggressive silent treatment when he tells her to back off. All of the dialogue and the character relationships in this story are so natural. It’s a million miles removed from whatever tin ear penned the last story.

One final note: partway through the last season, Marie asked, not unreasonably, whether these people were ever going to change clothes. Even Leela found a second set of leathers, so you had to wonder why Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan never raided the TARDIS closets. (Especially when one imagines Tegan might not have wanted to stain or tear her Air Australia uniform until she was certain they were safely back in 1981.) Adric never did find anything new to wear, but Tegan has changed into an awful white ensemble that actress Janet Fielding didn’t like and once called her “boob tube.” And now finally Nyssa has found some new clothes, which calls into question just who in the world stocked the TARDIS wardrobe in the first place. Funny how nobody ever cosplays in this hideous thing, isn’t it?

Between the two halves of this story, our son asked to watch “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” Jodie Whittaker’s first episode, again. There’s a bit toward the end where the Doctor mentions that it’s been a long time since she shopped for women’s clothes. I wonder, at some point when she was in her first or second incarnation, did she say “I should probably buy racks and racks and racks of clothes since I’m going to have a never-ending stream of young people from Earth gallivanting around with me.” Somebody should be blamed for Nyssa’s weird space waitress costume. Was it Troughton’s Doctor? I bet it was Troughton.

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Doctor Who: Snakedance (parts one and two)

Even while I’ve grumbled about the last two Doctor Who stories, our son has been loving this run of adventures, and really enjoys Peter Davison’s Doctor. So naturally, we get to my favorite Davison story and he’s utterly miserable. “Snakedance,” which was written by Christopher Bailey and directed by Fiona Cumming, features the return of the Mara and an early TV appearance by future sitcom megastar Martin Clunes as a bored young aristocrat. I think it’s a tremendously entertaining story that moves at a much faster pace than a typical Who adventure, but our son protests that it’s too creepy and too scary. It’s full of dark caves and possessions and Tegan acting malicious and evil.

Of course, another reason our son may be less than thrilled is because he saw right through a visual effect again. This doesn’t happen often, in part because he’s perfectly happy to suspend disbelief, but when it happens, he’s disappointed. In “Kinda,” the first story with the Mara, the creature manifests itself as a snake tattoo on its victims’ arms. In this story, the makeup and costume department evidently decided to save a little time and slap a big decal on the actors’ forearms rather than drawing and painting something. “That looks like a sticker,” he snorted.

I chose the picture above because “Snakedance” has a pretty unique point of view for the show: the Doctor comes across as an unhinged lunatic. Imagine the mayor of a big city working with the local archbishop to plan the annual Easter celebrations, and now dump in some loudmouthed nut in a cricket uniform bellowing that the ceremonies must be cancelled because Satan’s coming back. That’s kind of what the Doctor’s doing here, crashing dinner parties and yelling at everybody that the devil’s real before he gets dragged away by the cops. And the local dignitaries are perfectly reasonable and rational people; they’re not depicted as the typical meatheads who need to pay attention to our sensible hero. Hopefully the Doctor can take it down a notch so he can save the day. Maybe a night cooling off in the local jail’s drunk tank will help?

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts three and four)

So here we see Anthony Ainley made up as “the Portreeve,” an old, learned man in the strange city of Castrovalva. The disguise worked. I paused in the end credits for part three, where Ainley is credited as “Neil Toynay,” and asked Marie whether she recognized the actor, and she didn’t. “So who is he?” our son asked. “Mom and I saw him the other night in Out of the Unknown,” I said, attempting one more clue. Unknown was a BBC anthology series that started as adaptations of proper, pipe-smoking sci-fi that evolved into original works of psychological horror and the supernatural by the end. What survived the BBC’s wiping is incredibly uneven and occasionally terrible, but almost always interesting to watch. My favorite is the 1966 adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” which is just eye-poppingly amazing. Ainley was the star of a 1971 story called “Welcome Home” which she and I watched Wednesday night. It is almost oppressively creepy, and he’s excellent in it.

So bravo to Ainley, the makeup team, and director Fiona Cumming for pulling it off. When he reveals himself to be the Master in part four, only one of the three people in this audience saw it coming. I honestly don’t remember whether I saw through the disguise when I first saw this in late 1984. I probably didn’t.

Castrovalva is a city on the top of a steep, rocky hill on a quiet and calm wooded planet that made us all want to hike and climb the rocks there. The city is populated by incredibly likable and kind people, one of them played by the fine character actor Michael Sheard, and the Doctor evidently hasn’t paid enough attention to 20th Century popular culture, because he doesn’t spot that the city is built like an MC Escher print, with all the staircases leading to the same place and sometimes upside down.

I’ve noted this little hole in the Doctor’s knowledge before, back when we learned that the Master is a King Crimson fan. I’ll tell you what was going on during the Third Doctor’s exile. He was taking Jo to the National Gallery, name-dropping all the artists he’s known, and telling ribald stories about Titian. Meanwhile, the Master was hanging out in record stores and head shops, seeing what pipe-smoking sci-fi readers were framing on their living room walls, and sneering about snobs who use words like “ribald.”

Our son was very pleased with this story, which was nice, because he’s been more patient than engaged with the last few things we’ve watched together. “I really liked this one,” he told us, singling out the part where one of the Castrovalvan people saves the day by swinging from a chandelier into the Master’s infernal machine. The Master shouts “My web!” when it happens, which is slightly comical. Then he tries to escape in his TARDIS, finds that he can’t use it to get out of the collapsing, recursive geography of Castrovalva, steps outside and bellows “My web!” again, which is more than just “slightly” comical.

So that’s it for Peter Davison’s first adventure. He makes a great team with Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, and Janet Fielding. The story is original, and certainly unlike anything we’ve seen on the show before. The dialogue’s sometimes clumsy, and Tegan must have grown up in a household full of pipe-smoking sci-fi readers, because she has accepted all of this with no confusion or complaint, but this is another very good example of what I was talking about with “The Leisure Hive” when I said that the program is trying to look and sound interesting and different. You really get the sense that everybody involved wants to make this show work.

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts one and two)

Back to January 1982 and Peter Davison’s first story in Doctor Who. Davison gets to spend the first half hour stumbling around the corridors of the TARDIS, and the second half hour asleep and being carried around in a coffin. Nobody hates “Castrovalva,” but that’s because episodes three and four are incredibly clever and fun. If the entire thing was like the first two parts, things would have been different.

Season nineteen was recorded way out of order, first so that Davison would have a chance to get a handle on his character before going back and acting all erratic and weird in this one, and second so that the people behind the scenes could nail down exactly what this story was going to be. The story that was planned for Davison’s debut wasn’t working, so the producer commissioned Christopher H. Bidmead, who had been his script editor the previous year, to come up with this. As with Bidmead’s previous story, “Logopolis”, there’s too much technobabble in the script, and poor Sarah Sutton is forced to try and make something called “telebiogenesis” sound important. The quirky concept this time around is recursion, which, again, gets fun in the second half of the story.

Still, even though these first two parts are incredibly slow, they’re just so likable. It’s actually kind of refreshing to spend a full half hour episode letting the Doctor be weird and absent-minded and spend time on the strangeness of his regeneration crisis. Later on, the indulgence of “the Doctor gets to be WACKY when he regenerates” would grate, but I like it here. And the simple, slow pace was perfect for our son, who really enjoyed this. The pacing is perfect for younger viewers, with one problem at a time and a detailed, engaging solution to each new issue. That said, he did complain that the obstacles were ensuring that absolutely nobody was getting what they wanted. He even felt sorry for the Master after his traps were foiled, because surely if the heroes were miserable, then at least the villain could have a good day!

One point of bother, pointing the way toward future irritations, though: the Doctor has three companions all of a sudden, and they all apparently read a book about the show or something, because they all know what regeneration is. It’s an ugly case of the people making the program choosing to believe that everybody watching the program is well-versed in the lore and reads the preview articles in the TV section. And while it’s incredibly laudable that Tegan has decided to stay and help this strange man through his regeneration crisis instead of waving everybody off back into outer space, the script treats her as though she’d somehow taken the Doctor Who Companion Orientation and has signed on for a season or more. Later stories would remember that Tegan’s goal was to get back to Earth in the spring of 1981 and get to her stewardess job at Heathrow Airport. It’s not mentioned even once here!

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