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Doctor Who: The War Games (part five)

Intrigue grows a little this week as we meet another villain, the Security Chief, played by James Bree in a high-pitched, teeth-gritted performance that most of us older Doctor Who fans have been known to imitate a time or two. Interrogating Zoe with a (no, not the) mind probe, he learns that she is from the 21st Century and travels in a TARDIS, but he deliberately withholds that information from the War Chief. Later, he confides with an underling, stating that the War Chief is not of their race, that the War Chief betrayed his own people, and that he fears he may be ready to double-cross this bunch of aliens as well.

Incidentally, this bunch never get a group name, which is really a little odd for Doctor Who. They really are just “that bunch of aliens with the eyewear fetish from The War Games,” although people often call them “the Warlords” or, magically, “the Aliens.”

Anyway, this episode ends with Jamie unwittingly leading a raiding party into an Alien ambush. I’ve looked back over our blog and really haven’t praised Frazer Hines as Jamie anywhere near enough. He’s always terrific fun, and I love the way he plays the “because you’re a girl” card with Lady Jennifer without thinking and instantly tries to get himself out of trouble. When Jamie goes down under a barrage of ray gun fire at the cliffhanger, it scared the devil out of our son, who whimpered and tried to hide behind his mommy.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part four)

I love this scene to pieces. It’s just seconds long and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the black and white era. The Doctor and the War Chief make eye contact… and they recognize each other. Of course, we had to underline what makes this important to our son, without giving anything away. He doesn’t quite grasp the ramifications. Neither did many of the people watching, perhaps.

Four years previously, when William Hartnell was the star, the Doctor had met another of his people. Played by the popular comedian Peter Butterworth, he called himself the Monk, had his own TARDIS, and, perhaps remarkably, was the only individual villain in the show’s first six seasons to get a rematch with the Doctor. He originally appeared in a four-part serial in July 1965, and then came back in January for three weeks as an ally of the Daleks, but the character was not used again after that. That’s in part because Butterworth became very busy making Carry On movies, and in part because the constantly changing production teams of Who during these days probably wanted to do their own things. The Monk was later resurrected in comics, novels, and audio adventures. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Graeme Garden occasionally plays the character opposite Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in radio/CD stories.

But for the entire tenure of Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, there’s been no hint of any other time travelers at all other than the Daleks, no other TARDIS, and certainly no people from his past who might recognize him*. There’s a great bit early on in this episode where the Doctor gets a bad feeling that he knows where this technology came from, but declines to elaborate to Zoe. Suddenly it becomes very clear that he’s going to have to start elaborating before this adventure ends.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part three)

I love the slow reveals of this story. This time out, we get confirmation that Gen. Smythe and his opposite number, Von Weich (played by David Garfield in full sneer mode) are aliens. They report to a mustached man played by Edward Brayshaw, whom the credits name as the War Chief, and he, in turn, reports to an as-yet unseen character called the War Lord. Layers upon layers, in the same way that the battlefields of 1917 France, ancient Rome, and 1862 America are laid next to each other.

The clues are there for adult viewers to start putting things together, but children still need a little help, as when Zoe says aloud what the grownups in the audience are thinking: the capsule that appears and disappears containing more soldiers than it should comfortably fit, and which sounds a whole lot like the TARDIS is possibly another TARDIS, which might be why Brayshaw’s War Chief is so interested in reports about time travelers. Our son is still slowly juggling the pieces and enjoying watching this unfold. I like how they don’t underline these possibilities, but let the audience consider them. “Lot for you to chew on before tomorrow night, huh?” I asked, and, eyes wide, he nodded. Definitely.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (parts one and two)

Patrick Troughton’s final Doctor Who adventure was the ten-part serial (ten!) “The War Games,” shown from April through June of 1969. As a whole, it is really overshadowed by the game-changing revelations of the last two parts, and so the story has gained a reputation of being padded out, as though the first eight episodes are in the way of the more important finale.

I last watched this story with my older son more than a decade ago, and we sure didn’t see it that way. Neither will our favorite five year-old critic, because he doesn’t know anything about the Doctor beyond what he’s seen. The legend hasn’t yet got in the way of the narrative. Viewers in 1969 didn’t see it that way either, though there were a lot fewer of them than began season six. The audience figures started dropping from 6-7 million viewers a week to about 5.5 million in March, and this story averaged about 4.9 million. It’s theorized that announcing Patrick Troughton’s departure, without confirming his replacement and the modified format – that would come later – led viewers to tune out, or rather not tune back in if they missed a week, thinking the show had ended.

People who did tune in found a very brutal first part of this story, which is why we watched the first two together. It opens on the western front in 1917, with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe swept up in the Great War, rescued from Germans by an ambulance driver, Lady Jennifer Buckingham, and Lt. Carstairs, played by David Savile. But General Smythe, played with icy anger by Noel Coleman (later Col. Marchbanks in Lord Peter Wimsey), has it in for the Doctor at first sight, and sentences him to execution for espionage. We learn in the first episode that Smythe can control his fellow officers’ minds whenever he wears a pair of spectacles, and that he has a futuristic television set in his wall.

I was concerned that our son would find this confusing and the level of hopelessness in military bureaucracy too oppressive, and I was right. Even after a pre-show history lesson about World War One and trenches, he was very, very restless and didn’t understand why nobody wanted to listen to the Doctor. We emphasized the science fiction elements as they were introduced, which seemed to help. Episode two went over much better. This one throws in a Redcoat from 1746, travel cabinets that appear and disappear into thin air, a mist that transports our heroes across time, and a cliffhanger where they’re attacked by a Roman legion. He paid much closer attention and thinks this is very strange.

But why must it be ten (ten!) episodes long? It actually replaced two separate stories, a six-parter that Malcolm Hulke was writing, and a four-parter by Derrick Sherwin that was intended to wrap up Patrick Troughton’s time. With deadlines looming and Sherwin moved to the role of producer, Terrance Dicks moved Hulke, with whom he’d written for television several times before, into his office and they hammered out one huge storyline for David Maloney to direct rather than moving resources into two separate productions. I noticed that Maloney would call on a couple of actors that he’d used in his previous two Who serials for the later episodes, indicating perhaps that as this epic moved through its weeks of production, he wanted to minimize audition time by casting artists already familiar with Doctor Who.

I think it’s a little long myself, but while many fans have suggested that some of the middle episodes could have been edited down, it’s actually these first two that I’d rather have seen combined. Packing in more of the anachronisms into the first part, and finishing with that tremendously clever cliffhanger of the Romans charging down the hill at our heroes, would have been a terrific start to a nine-part adventure. No shorter, though.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part six)

Our son is mostly – mostly – very well-behaved when we watch TV together. We think it’s very important to teach him the manners of being quiet and still while watching something with other people. Later today, I’m taking him to see The Lego Batman Movie. He’s been to the theater twice before, but I learned from experience with my older kids that it’s a constant process, to be quiet and respect other people in the audience, and you constantly, constantly have to reinforce it.

But the reality is that he’s five and that some grumbling is simply going to happen. Once in a while, it’s pretty funny. Today, he got very worried as the Ice Warriors seemed to regain the upper hand and take the Doctor prisoner. And he let us know “If the Ice Warriors win, I’m not going to watch Doctor Who again. For a month!” When the Doctor’s plan worked, and he and Jamie tackle the remaining enemies, he was thrilled, and yelled “THAT! WAS! AWESOME!” I guess we won’t have to wait until April to see what happens next.

One major bone of contention, however, came with the Ice Warriors’ heavy breathing. The sound of their asthmatic hissing really aggravated both Mommy and our son. The head villain, Slaar, rasping and gasping, reports to a grand marshal on a video-link in his invasion flagship. The marshal speaks without any breathing problems. In fact, he speaks in the dulcet tones of somebody more accustomed to delivering lines about slings, arrows, and outrageous fortunes than about retro-active rockets and orbits around the sun. Fans have suggested that the marshal, in an atmosphere mix that Ice Warriors can breathe without issue, didn’t need to hack and cough and hiss like Slaar and the grunts. But geez, couldn’t the guy have made a little effort to sound more like an alien menace than a town crier?

Unfortunately, the next serial, “The Space Pirates,” is mostly missing, without any of the telesnaps that almost all of the lost Doctor Who stories have. The man who shot these photos, John Cura, had stopped taking the snaps due to illness, and passed away in April 1969. This slot was given to Robert Holmes to write after two other planned serials fell through. It was script-edited by Derrick Sherwin again, while Terrance Dicks, who had worked on “Seeds” and the previous two stories, worked ahead on the season’s final ten episodes.

Meanwhile, producer Peter Bryant was preparing to leave Who for something a little more prestigious, and in color, as the BBC began phasing out black and white broadcasts. This would be Paul Temple, a detective series that would become very important to Who‘s production as 1969 and 1970 rolled on. Derrick Sherwin planned to move up the BBC chain and become a producer himself. In March 1969, Bryant formally moved over to begin work on Temple, with “The Space Pirates” his final Who production credit. Sherwin became Who‘s producer, and the serial after that, “The War Games,” would be his first in charge. More on that in a week or so.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (parts four and five)

I decided we’d watch two episodes together, in part because part four of this serial is the traditional middle-of-the-story one where not much happens, and in part because part five ends with a terrific cliffhanger. Part four was rewritten to give Patrick Troughton seven days’ vacation. He didn’t trim his sideburns during his time off, and the hairdresser didn’t spot the difference. When the Doctor wakes up, having missed out on an episode from exposure to the Martian seed pods, his bushy sideburns are the first thing you notice.

So, at this point, the Ice Warriors have completely bypassed the Daleks as our son’s most feared alien menace. (And, looking ahead at our viewing schedule, since the Daleks weren’t in the series at this time, it’ll be several months before they have a chance to retake the lead!) This was a real behind the sofa, eat the blanket, crawl on Mommy’s lap experience. When Jamie and Zoe realize too late that they’ve trapped themselves in a building with one, he very nearly broke into tears he was so worried. Troughton saved the day by getting stuck outside yelling “oh no” and “oh dear” and making silly faces while the BBC’s foam machine dumped hundreds of gallons of soap and stuff on him. It’s precisely the clowning comedy that was needed to break the tension.

I like how this is pitched so perfectly at children. There’s plenty for the grownups to appreciate – the script’s pretty good, the direction’s great, the Ice Warriors are sadistic and brutal, Louise Pajo and Ronald Leigh-Hunt are terrific – and also to smile about the inescapable BBC-ness of it all. The actor Hugh Morton shows up for no other reason than the writers decided that what this show really needed was another middle-aged man in space pajamas to talk about full inquiries and closed-door meetings about food shortages.

But for kids, especially the ones with beginners’ chemistry sets, this has bits of foam under the microscope and talk about oxygen and splashing acids on balloons looking for the way to stop the fungus. (It’s water. Really. Water.) The set designer was evidently watching Batman, and gave the thermostat on the moonbase a whacking great steering wheel on the wall to raise the temperature, and the weather control station is a gigantic complex whose critical piece of equipment is a small box with four levers, all of which the Ice Warrior can fix in the “DRY” position to stop it raining. It’s like that because this is a show for all audiences. It’s there for our five year-old to figure out, when he’s not hiding in terror.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part three)

The original run of Doctor Who was a case where there was a lot of received wisdom and orthodoxy about the show’s past because, due to the BBC’s policies against repeats, so little of it was able to be seen in the seventies and eighties when fandom started organizing and writing articles and features and getting magazines and books published. This wasn’t a case like Star Trek, to use an obvious example, where the show was in constant rotation everywhere and was released on home video not long after VHS tapes were on every shelf.

This was a time when only five of Patrick Troughton’s 21 serials existed in full. There was no binge-watching then, and no jumping-on point. For many years, only two of those five were in any way available to most British viewers: “The Krotons,” which the BBC repeated in 1981, and “The Seeds of Death,” which was among the first stories to be released on home video in 1985. These two stories explain why the second Doctor got the reputation – reinforced by “The Three Doctors” – as “the clown.”

These are the stories with all the “Great jumping gobstoppers” and “Oh my giddy aunt” lines, and, of course, this episode has the famous showpiece in which Troughton runs and flails and throws his hands up and makes silly faces while some Ice Warriors lumber around the moonbase chasing him. “You’ve got no orders to kill me. Your leader will want to speak to me,” the Doctor says. “Your leader will be angry if you kill me. I’m a genius!”

Eventually, the other three stories became more readily available, and the orphaned episodes from incomplete serials became more widespread, and, best of all, about another eighteen episodes were recovered and returned. Everybody’s now got a much better picture of Troughton being able and willing to take things deadly seriously, but there’s still a sense of that reputation lingering. The chase in this episode is a comedy aside, a chance for the actor to do something silly and fun in a story much more lighthearted and child-friendly than, say, “The Macra Terror” or “The Enemy of the World.” It’s an adorable diversion, but it never should have defined the second Doctor in the way it did.

But let me tell you: this diversion was timed absolutely perfectly. This episode scared the pants off our son and boy, did he ever need the Doctor to clown around and take the edge off. The two principal Ice Warriors in their original serial were so sadistic and mean, and even though these guys are, by comparison, character-free grunts who just look neat, they just freaking shoot down everybody who isn’t obeying orders. He is seriously worried about everybody other than the Doctor. He loses consciousness after having a Martian seed pod blow up in his face, so all the other characters are sitting ducks in his eyes. He enjoyed the comedy runaround, but things fell apart again. “That was so creepy,” he grumbled, clarifying that he does not mean fun creepy, but “scary creepy.”

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part two)

Egad, it’s even worse than I remembered. They get this rocket fueled and our heroes briefed in maybe a couple of hours. There’s no sense of time at all. Director Michael Ferguson brings a lot of visual flair to this story, but he can’t salvage this for adult viewers. I can more easily believe a machine traveling in time and space than this rocket getting launched so quickly. That’s doubly true since they spent almost as much screen time on two old men yelling back and forth about whether it can be done. The lying old coot who built the rocket could have just said “It’s actually been completely ready for months. I run a four-hour diagnostic systems check every day. We just need to program the navigation. Let’s get this show on the road!”

But then again, I’m not the target audience. This went over extremely well with our son, who was literally hopping with excitement during the countdown. And he lives in a world without any real media attention paid to rockets. Imagine the kids of 1969, when Apollo launches were television events, watching this. We’ve seen glimpses of this past when we watch the original Thunderbirds, and see how in that show’s 2066, worldwide TV audiences tuned in for hours in the buildup to Sun Probe or Zero-X taking off. At this point, the Ice Warriors are secondary to the story. This is about a rocket to the moon, four months before we landed there.

The thrilling launch was bookended by two scenes of real suspense and terror as an Ice Warrior searches the moonbase for a technician who is hiding in a storeroom building weapons and a radio to call Earth. This had his teeth on edge and a blanket held high for safety. It’s not that he was necessarily concerned for that guy’s welfare; it’s just that he knows how mean Ice Warriors are.

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