Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts one and two)

Sometime in the second half of 1984, I convinced my parents to drop my younger brother and me in downtown Atlanta for my first con, one of those Creation shows that were common at the time. We spent a few hours drooling over comic books that we couldn’t afford and several more hours in one of the video rooms. They showed “Nightmare of Eden” to a packed house. It had aired on WGTV locally a few months previously, so I’d seen it before. It was my first Doctor Who repeat. And the audience loved it. They treated the monsters seriously and they laughed at the Doctor’s jokes. When David Daker’s character tells the Doctor that the company that the Doctor claims to represent went bankrupt twenty years ago, the Doctor instantly says “Well, I wondered why I hadn’t been paid,” and the room just exploded with laughter.

Our son also really likes it, apart from the scary monsters, which are only briefly glimpsed in the first two episodes. There’s a lot to like so far. The down sides are pretty minor. I think the worst offense is that, not content with letting a “Have a care, Doctor!” slip through in the last story, our beloved script editor allowed a “Don’t play the fool with me” this time, but we’ll live.

Behind the scenes, “Nightmare of Eden” was written by Bob Baker. It’s his only solo Who script after co-writing eight serials with Dave Martin. It was partially directed by Alan Bromly, an older BBC veteran who was approaching the end of a long career, but he actually quit midway through one of the recording sessions and the producer, Graham Williams, had to actually step in and finish it himself, probably growling that what he really wanted to do three years previously was produce a nice, safe cop show without one crisis after another like he was forced to manage on Doctor Who. Apparently he was already thinking of quitting, and this troubled production was the final straw. More on those troubles next time.

Doctor Who: City of Death (parts three and four)

The great big question, of course, is not whether the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan will save all of human history by defeating Scaroth on the shores of primeval Earth four hundred million years ago, but whether our son would come to his senses and enjoy this story. Happily, he did, and even conceded that the first half was also pretty exciting. Of course he enjoyed Duggan. Heroes in Doctor Who who just want to punch and thump their way through the narrative are pretty rare, so Duggan’s fists-first approach resulted in a few giggles. When Duggan observes “That’s a spaceship!” in part four, how could you not just love the guy?

But our son is also very clear that Scaroth is, somehow, one of the creepiest and scariest of all Who monsters. “He’s just got one eye, and no nose, and no mouth,” he told me with some urgency. He also loved/hated the part where Catherine Schell unrolls an old parchment to see that one of the green-skinned, one-eyed splinters of Scaroth was hanging out in ancient Egypt with Thoth and Horus and, presumably, Sutekh, and I could feel our son’s skin crawl across the sofa.

Part four also has the delightful cameo appearance of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as a pair of art snobs critiquing the TARDIS, as they’ve mistaken it for an installation in a gallery. When it dematerializes, Bron, without a note of passion in her quiet voice, calls the installation “exquisite,” having no real idea what she’s seen. I love this bit. It certainly takes you out of the story to see John Cleese making a cameo, but it’s so funny that it’s impossible to object. The whole production’s like this. If there’s a flaw anywhere, who cares.

Doctor Who: City of Death (parts one and two)

If there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t think that “City of Death” is one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, then naturally, that little contrarian would be sitting on the sofa with us, complaining that Julian Glover is too evil a villain, and that his alien other-self is too creepy and scary. I’ve shown several people this story over the years. Trust our seven year-old to be the first and certainly the only one to grumble about it being creepy.

Never mind him. “City of Death” is a magically witty, silly, and clever story with hilarious characters and some of the most consistently funny dialogue in the history of the program. The serial has an unusual origin. It started life as “The Gamble With Time,” a four-parter written by David Fisher and set in Monte Carlo, where the Doctor and Romana teamed up with a detective meant to be a pastiche of Bulldog Drummond to investigate a mysterious count using alien technology to manipulate casinos. At the eleventh hour, with most of the serial actually cast and rehearsals set to begin, “Gamble” was finally abandoned, in part probably because nobody in 1979 still cared about Bulldog Drummond, and, over four frantic days, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams rebuilt it into “City of Death.” They rushed off to France to film everybody jogging around Paris, and everything just clicked completely.

The rest is history. Accompanied by a publicity blitz surrounding Doctor Who‘s first overseas filming, “City of Death” hit the hugest ratings in the program’s history. In part that’s because ITV was actually on strike for the first three Saturdays this aired, but part four still had an audience of more than 16 million people. It’s one of the most amazingly quotable Who stories, although our son was baffled why I burst out laughing when the Doctor tells the countess “Well, you’re a beautiful woman, probably.”

Joining Julian Glover for this wonderful romp, there’s David Graham – still the voice of Parker from Thunderbirds – along with Catherine Schell, Tom Chadbon, and Peter Halliday in a small role. You’ve got seven Mona Lisas, timeslips, Louis XV chairs, alien technology, running through Paris, and a detective who’s very anxious to “thump” anybody. Even if this was creepy and scary, which it most certainly is not, I can’t imagine not loving this completely. Ah, well, our son does tend to enjoy the second half of Who adventures more than the first, so we’ll see what tomorrow night brings!

Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (parts three and four)

Told you we’d see Timothy Bateson again in a couple of nights! Bateson plays one of the great little one-off Doctor Who characters, a little old man who the locals sneeringly call Binro the Heretic. Binro’s great crime has been measuring the space between the lights in the night sky and concluding that those are suns just like the one in Ribos’s sky. I love how they take time in episode three for a quiet little moment where the kinder of the two con artists lets Binro know that he isn’t wrong.

Other than Bateson, I’m afraid these two episodes have a few actors who really get on my nerves, but Iain Cuthbertson’s delightful repartee with Tom Baker makes up for it. And while our son was thrilled and frightened by more run-ins with the scary Shrivenzale monster in the catacombs beneath the city, he loved seeing K9 again, and really liked the Doctor and Cuthbertson’s character pulling fast ones on each other, and the Doctor getting away with the macguffin that Cuthbertson thought that he had pocketed.

Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (parts one and two)

Before we get started with tonight’s story, I always like to point out that the old Marvel UK has been doing a completely terrific Doctor Who comic since the late seventies. It’s had its ups and downs, but the run of Fourth Doctor stories is really incredibly fun. Almost all the episodes were drawn by Dave Gibbons, and the writers include Pat Mills, John Wagner, and Steve Moore. They’re available in two volumes from Panini, and they fit beautifully in the continuity right between “The Invasion of Time” and this story, so check them out.

Back to television, and we’re in the fall of 1978 for Doctor Who‘s sixteenth season. Graham Williams is still the producer and Anthony Read the script editor. New in the TARDIS is Mary Tamm as Romana, a young woman from the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. Well, young-ish. She says she’s 140, and that the Doctor is lying about his age when he claims to be 746. He’s actually 749, she says.

This is the celebrated season where the Doctor and Romana search for a macguffin called the Key to Time across 26 episodes. The first adventure is my favorite of the six stories, an incredibly witty escapade written by Robert Holmes where our heroes stumble across two con artists pulling a scam on a disgraced, and easily offended, warlord. The lead criminal is played by Iain Cuthbertson, who seems like he’s having the time of his life. It’s set on a backwater planet where the superstitious locals haven’t yet discovered the telescope, and their relics are guarded by a savage, green monster that our son called a “multi-demon alien beast!”

I thought that our son might not enjoy this one because it’s too talky for him and doesn’t have any action scenes, but he surprised me by saying he isn’t enjoying it because it’s too scary! The green monster, which is called a Shrivenzale, is one of the program’s less impressive beasts, but its offscreen roaring and the worry it causes everybody has him convinced.

Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts five and six)

People have been making new suggestions for Doctor Who spinoffs since the mid-sixties, but I think that our son’s onto a unique one. He believes that there should be a show that sounds just perfect, and since he is still a few years from meeting Strax, I’m amazed by his prescience. He calls his show Stupid Sontaran and it’s about a Sontaran who acts just like all the others and is obsessed with war, but he either gives or receives really dumb orders, like “I order you to take a nap for the glorious Sontaran empire!” So, Chris Chibnall, if you like it, and I’m sure that you do, drop me a line, and we’ll get our boy some representation to make it all nice and legal.

Everyone remembers the Sontarans’ surprise appearance for this story’s last two episodes, and everybody remembers that the very noisy original K9 stays behind on Gallifrey, and so does Leela, in what might be the all-time worst companion departure in the entire series. It would have been better if she had died heroically saving the Doctor…. or if she stayed behind to join the fur-clad Gallifreyan dropouts who live outside the city… or if she stayed behind with Rodan, with whom she’s actually spent some screen time in this adventure, though that might have been pretty unlikely for the BBC in 1978. No, she has fallen in love, completely offscreen, with that Chief O’Hara dude. Both actress Louise Jameson and her character deserved a lot better than this.

Yeah, I know, these observations are all that anybody ever says about the end of this story, but that’s all I’ve got. Well, I guess that our son was impressed by just how many corridors and rooms there are inside the TARDIS, much more than he believed was in there. And he did get a kick out of the Doctor’s greenhouse having a big Sontaran-eating flytrap, but otherwise this, like several serials this season, was an adventure that limped to its finale. The next season will be better.

We’ll take a break from Doctor Who to rotate something else in, but stick around! We will begin season sixteen in about three weeks!

Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts three and four)

So Gallifrey has been invaded by these aliens called Vardans, and the Doctor’s been playing along because they’re telepathic and can detect treachery. They spend part three and the first half of part four not fully materialized, in sort of a shimmering thought-form. This is an incredibly interesting idea that looks incredibly silly, because the BBC just couldn’t make this concept work very well. When these powerful enemies finally do show themselves, it’s just three actors in basic sci-fi military uniforms. Amazingly, the show even underlines the flat revelation by having Tom Baker and Milton Johns complain about how disappointing it is. A comedy womp-womp sound wouldn’t have done worse.

Some of the actors in this story are very good, especially Baker, Johns, and John Arnatt. Unfortunately, the Doctor spends most of part four in the company of the Chief O’Hara character that I mentioned last time, a guy called Andred who’s there for the Doctor to explain all the plot to. I’m sure the actor’s a very nice fellow, but this character is incredibly annoying, even more so because I know how this story is going to end next time, and forty years hasn’t made it any less stupid.

Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts one and two)

Regular readers might have figured out that production of Doctor Who‘s fifteenth season was troubled and erratic. It really was, and that’s before we came to the collapse of the six-part serial that was planned to end the season. It was scripted by a veteran TV writer called David Weir and it wasn’t working, so “The Invasion of Time” was an eleventh-hour replacement co-written by the show’s producer and script editor, Graham Williams and Anthony Read, and broadcast under a pseudonym.

It’s an interesting story, but it’s not a great one. We’re back on Gallifrey, where everything is starting to look like a 1970s beauty salon and where many, many details are different since we were last here fifteen months or so previously. None of the actors from “The Deadly Assassin” returned for this, just names and ranks and costumes. John Arnatt takes over the role of the Doctor’s former teacher, Borusa, in this adventure, and the wonderful Milton Johns plays Kelner, the new Castellan. He’s the police commissioner, basically, and the head of the citadel guards is a barely competent red-clad fellow who wishes he could be Chief O’Hara when he grows up.

The real fun in parts one and two is that the kids in the audience are not in on the secret of what’s going on. It’s all a big mystery, although one that won’t tax adult viewers. The Doctor has signed a contract with some alien invaders, and K9’s in favor of this plan, but Leela can’t be allowed to stay in the Time Lord city. Revisiting the plot of “The Deadly Assassin,” the Doctor has returned home to assume his role as president, so that he can access the Matrix, but Leela has to be expelled, K9 has to destroy the planet’s force field, and the Doctor needs a private room with lead-lined walls, ceilings, and floors… almost as though he needs to keep a big secret from somebody. Our son enjoyed this, especially seeing K9 cause lots of explosions in the force field generator basement, but he is completely stumped as to what our hero is planning. Good!

Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts three and four)

It’s always nice when our son is happy and excited about what we’re watching. He didn’t want breakfast this morning, he wanted to watch Doctor Who. Those last five Twilight Zone stories we watched were really sapping his enthusiasm!

He was thrilled and enjoyed this one, and I agree. It’s really entertaining, and amazingly, only the Doctor and Leela survive the incident. Even more amazingly, he doesn’t seem to notice, and certainly doesn’t say anything about it. The Doctor is shown as brooding and frightened for much of the story, until he figures out that their enemy is an alien blob called a Rutan, at which point he becomes the more relaxed and confident hero that we know.

But he never returns to brood over the fact that he failed to save any of the humans in the lighthouse, and left behind what must have been one of England’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Think about it: at some point, the authorities would find the bodies of these eight people, one of them graphically disemboweled by the Rutan to understand how Earthling anatomy works. One is a peer called Lord Palmerdale and another is a highly respectable retired colonel, and the killer left a fortune in diamonds behind, before fleeing. The History Channels and the In Search Ofs of the Who world probably feature recreations of “The Fang Rock Lighthouse Murders” as often as stories about Jack the Ripper, the lost colony at Roanoke, and the Oak Island Money Pit.

The Rutans, incidentally, are kind of the big Doctor Who monster that wasn’t. They were first mentioned in 1973’s “The Time Warrior” as the primary enemies of the Sontarans, but as for television Who, they’re an offscreen enemy, existing only to motivate the Sontarans into moving into this situation or that to gain a strategic advantage over them. It’s always “What are you Sontarans doing on Koosbaine?” and they say “We must conquer Koosbaine to establish a bridgehead into Andromeda to defeat the Rutans, don’t stand in our way, puny Time Lord!”

The next time a Rutan would actually be seen is in a 1995 direct-to-video movie called Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans. This is an independent production made with the cooperation of Robert Holmes’ estate, who own the rights to the aliens and license them out, but without any BBC input. The producers even got Terrance Dicks to write the script for the movie, and cast a bunch of Who and Blake’s 7 actors to play the parts.

It’s not actually a shame that the Rutans have never reappeared on the show, I say. The shapeshifting and electrical powers are interesting, but as characters, all they do is rant about the glory of war, and we get enough of that from the Sontarans!

Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts one and two)

Our son has quite a delightful theory about “Horror of Fang Rock,” the serial that launched Doctor Who‘s fifteenth season in the fall of 1977. The old lighthouse keeper believes in a monster called the Beast of Fang Rock, which was last allegedly seen eighty years before – the 1820s – on an occasion where two men died. Our son thinks that the shooting star that crashed in the nearby ocean might be the beast teleporting from its home planet, and that it comes to Earth every eighty years to feed. His theory was much, much more detailed than that, but he was talking fast and I wasn’t taking notes. Usually he’s quick to move on, with a brief “creepy!” before finding something to take his mind off the terrors, but not tonight!

“Horror of Fang Rock” was a last-minute substitute for another script by Terrance Dicks that was due to go into production before some high muckity-muck at the BBC decided to cancel it. That story was called The Vampire Mutations, and since the BBC was making an adaptation of Dracula that fall, somebody at the top didn’t want Who doing the same monster. So this was how the new producer, Graham Williams, got his start on the show, having his debut story axed out from under him. Dicks hurriedly wrote this replacement, but the delay meant that other productions got the London facilities and this was made at the BBC’s Birmingham studios.

Lore has it that Tom Baker was in a horrible mood with this story, and transferred his grouchiness into what seems like genuine fear on camera. He’d clashed with the director, the fantastic Paddy Russell, before, and was butting heads with his co-star, Louise Jameson, because he was under the impression that he didn’t actually need a co-star. For the next four seasons, there are pah-lenty of stories of Tom Baker causing headaches for everybody around him behind the scenes, and making Williams’ job extraordinarily difficult!

The tension really works here. “Fang Rock” is a textbook example of a claustrophobic story. It’s all set in a lighthouse on a remote, craggy shore on a dark and foggy night. I don’t like some of the visuals, and a few of the actors really don’t impress me. Colin Douglas, who had been in “The Enemy of the World,” is the only guest star that I really like in this one, but I think it’s a super story. For something that had such a frantic production, it’s very impressive, and our son’s right, it really is creepy.