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Doctor Who: Full Circle (parts three and four)

This story is even better than I remembered it. There are unethical scientists and forbidden knowledge, and, in a very nice change, no villain at all. It’s just ordinary and badly flawed people in a bad situation without the resources or imagination to change it. “Full Circle” drops in some surprises and curve balls, and while some of these are telegraphed, the actors are so good that they don’t give any tells. I like how George Baker just casually mentions that it will take generations to get their ship up and moving again, as though of course the wise, travelling Doctor knows all about how people just naturally spend a century or more getting spacecraft ready. Our son really enjoyed it, as well. This has all the ingredients for a perfect story for under-tens, with enough for grown-ups to appreciate, too.

A few words about the music and opening credits: conventional wisdom has always grumbled that the neon tube logo, the starfield credits, and the 1980 arrangement of the theme tune are all combine to make the program’s weakest and least imaginative titles. I’ve always agreed. It’s a science fiction show, so “stars” is the theme, yeah? But darned if our kid doesn’t completely love them and has started dancing – at least, he claims it’s dancing – to the music. The incidental music within the show’s a different matter. Most of it is composed by Paddy Kingsland or Peter Howell at this stage and I have always really enjoyed it. Kingsland will end up letting me down badly with one score in a couple of years, but I really like how he introduces recurring motifs and even incorporates the Who theme into the background music in a couple of places. Everybody loves the musician Dudley Simpson for all the great work that he did in the seventies, but at least so far, it really seems like John Nathan-Turner was right to move on. The music is fresh and new, and especially with the much more energetic direction by the newcomers, the show is looking and feeling like it has more life in it than it had over the previous few years.

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Doctor Who: Full Circle (parts one and two)

I really enjoy it when our son reacts with such enthusiasm over Doctor Who‘s cliffhangers. Part one of “Full Circle” ends with the beasts-of-the-month, some Black Lagoon creatures called Marshmen, waking up and rising out of a mist-covered lake. Our son spent the recap behind the sofa. Then the second episode ends with some whacking huge spiders – some hilariously unconvincing tourist trap haunted house spiders with light bulb eyes and giant teeth, but spiders nonetheless – hatching from a pile of what everybody thought were ordinary watermelons that the locals call riverfruit. The kid was shocked. “That nutritious fruit is eggs for spiders!”

“Full Circle” is an entertaining adventure that’s aged extremely well. It was the first professional story by a young writer named Andrew Smith, and it’s the first Who serial to be directed by Peter Grimwade, who is by leagues the most interesting and influential director of the early eighties. It also features the first appearance of Adric, a new character who seems to be about fourteen years old, played by nineteen year-old Matthew Waterhouse. The casting of actors who are unmistakably older than their young characters is going to be a hallmark of eighties Who, unfortunately.

As for the older actors, there’s George Baker as a father torn between devotion and his new duties. We’ve seen Baker as the Beefeater in the first episode of The Goodies. He may have been best known at the time for his regular role in the BBC’s celebrated I, Claudius, though he was also the screen’s first Inspector Alleyn, in a series of Ngaio Marsh adaptations made for New Zealand television. Later, he’d play Wexford in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries for years. Plus there’s James “No, what a stooopid fool YOU ARE” Bree as the leader of this strange community.

Our son has definitely twigged that something weird is going on in this community. Every fifty or so years, a large settlement around a non-functioning “Starliner” retreats inside and seals the ship because the air outside is said to become toxic during “Mistfall.” The citizens make repairs and talk about a great embarkation to return them to their ancestors’ home planet. But the Doctor and K9 know the air is perfectly breathable, and after he breaks into the Starliner, with a young, grunting Marshman scurrying behind him, he starts people questioning why the society’s rulers are so keen to keep everybody locked indoors for years.

I think the combination of scary monsters, scary spiders, and lying bureaucrats has him especially interested to see what will happen next. I asked whether this story is better than “Meglos,” and he happily agreed. There’s certainly a lot to like here.

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Ace of Wands: Sisters Deadly (part three)

The theme of “things were better when we had an Empire” fuels quite a lot of British drama in the sixties and seventies. We’re going to see this several times in The Avengers, and we’ll certainly see it in a serial in the next batch of Doctor Who that we’ll watch called “The Mutants.” In this Ace of Wands adventure, the nuts and bolts of The Major’s plan are left deliberately vague. He plans to kidnap a general, hypnotize him, hold him for ransom, and yadda yadda yadda, the British military will be wearing red colonial uniforms again. There’s so much of this going on in the television drama of the period that it seems that writers were tapping into a sense of resentment and regret.

Of course, Ace of Wands is a children’s adventure series and it doesn’t linger on politics, and so the Major’s powers and plans are nebulous; this is all about the creepiness. It’s a very effective serial for its limitations, one of the better stories to have survived Thames’ wiping of the show.

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Ace of Wands: Sisters Deadly (parts one and two)

Victor Pemberton, who passed away earlier this week, penned another fabulously fun Ace of Wands adventure in 1972. This one’s full of creepy old ladies who really have unnerved our son, and one of them is apparently a hundred years old. That claim contradicts what the village postmaster tells Tarot. He says that old Matilda died a couple of years ago…

Whether a ghost or an impostor, Matilda seems to be in a co-hypnotizing act with a mysterious major, and, to test their powers, they hypnotize Chas into stealing £20 in money orders from the village post office. This makes the front page of the newspaper. Even allowing that £20 in 1972 is worth £184.50 today, that really must have been a slow news day.

Sylvia Coleridge, who was omnipresent in the sixties and seventies in the roles of daffy old ladies, plays Matilda’s sister Letty Edgington. As for Matilda, I fear the question is kind of instantly settled by the obviousness of the actor playing her. He might can fool a six year-old, but that’s clearly James Bree dragged up as Matilda, and even though he tries to give her an old lady voice, any time James Bree speaks in any role, all that I can hear is Doctor Who‘s Security Chief sneering “What… a… styoopid… fool… YOU! ARE!

I tease, but this is a really good story, paced extremely well and dripping with menace and malice. We’ll have to wait a couple of days for the resolution, unfortunately, but I remember it being a good one.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part nine)

Back in the dawn of time, before the word “binge” was used to describe watching TV, “The War Games” was what we binged. Taking a break from the show after part eight just wasn’t done, never mind part nine, which is a terrific climax and huge fun, but also full of “what comes next” foreboding. I know quite well what comes next, but I’m going to be pacing the floor all day waiting to see it again.

The cliffhanger was a punch in the gut for our son, who thought the story was over – the story of the War Games is, at least – but there’s still more to come. He loved the fighting, and he certainly loved seeing the Security Chief and the War Chief each being shot down. Before he goes, incidentally, the Security Chief gets one of the all time great quotable Doctor Who lines, all together now, “What… a… styoopid… fool… YOU! ARE!”

The War Chief, you’ll note, does not regenerate. That’s because the concept of regeneration wouldn’t be introduced to the series for another five years, but that hasn’t stopped fanfic writers and novelists – including, to be fair, this episode’s co-writer Terrance Dicks – from giving the character another life or two, usually twisting logic to turn him into a previous incarnation of the Master. I love how writers always call him the War Chief as though that was his name before he left the Time Lords, and not a title given him by his Alien employers. Or maybe that was his name, and it was the best job interview ever.

The last of these baddies to go is the War Lord, who is last seen propping up a desk with his body posture suggesting that the arrival of the Time Lords is like the arrival of his luggage. Anybody who isn’t a fan of Philip Madoc’s acting isn’t a fan of acting, period. I’m going to give “The Brain of Morbius” another spin next week because I like him so much.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part eight)

“Time Lords?!” our son exclaimed. I was very glad that he caught it. It’s in part eight of this story that it’s explicitly stated that the Doctor is a Time Lord. Then the Doctor and the War Chief get a private conversation and it’s spine-tingling. I love how the Doctor’s first words to his opponent are “I have nothing to say to you,” which is not even remotely our hero’s standard operating practice. He is really, really upset about meeting another of his kind.

Also amazing: the War Chief tells the audience for the first time that the Doctor stole his TARDIS, and he makes what may be the first reference to the look of the original Doctor in more than two years. The War Chief says “You’ve changed your appearance, but I know who you are.” It’s kind of become media lore that Sydney Newman and Innes Lloyd “saved” the show in 1966 by inventing the concept of regeneration, but that’s not true at all. As we’ll see over the next two episodes, that “cheating death” idea is still years away.

Anyway, their conversation just has me absolutely riveted because it’s so well done. Neither calls the other by name, and neither makes concessions to the audience by over-explaining. It’s incredibly well-written material. Edward Brayshaw is entertaining, but Patrick Troughton is doing something very new. The Doctor’s not acting with what we can see in hindsight is a mask for the benefit of his companions, his human adversaries, or his alien enemies. The Doctor we know and love is a little artificial. It’s fascinating to reconsider this episode in light of the conversation between Missy and Clara in the 2015 episode “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

This builds to a cliffhanger where it appears the Doctor has betrayed his friends and the trapped human soldiers by joining the Aliens. Sure, we grownups know better, but this concerned me as I wrote yesterday evening’s post. Last night, I reminded my son of the Batman episode “Not Yet He Ain’t,” which absolutely horrified him when he saw it, despite a pause to explain it and reassurances that Batman and the police were pretending that the heroes had gone bad and had to be shot dead. Adults might forget that this sense of betrayal can rock a young viewer. I didn’t want him to be so shocked by a cunning plan and a heroic double-cross that it upset him too greatly. I’m glad I took the time; he’s wondering what the Doctor has up his sleeve instead of worrying.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (parts six and seven)

Resuming this epic Doctor Who adventure with its next two episodes, we saw our son dive behind the sofa twice tonight, with each cliffhanger. Part six ends with the Aliens’ space-time capsule being fiddled with to have its internal dimensions shrink. No longer bigger on the inside, it threatens to crush our heroes. This very nearly brought our son to tears, and he stomped away and threw his beloved security blanket “Bict” at the sofa. Part seven ends with the Doctor abducted by the villains, and he didn’t see that at all, hidden as he was. He bolted as soon as he heard the sound of the SIDRAT’s engines. Man, part eight’s cliffhanger is going to have him livid.

Now there’s a word. I love how these villains are written to use words that they’d know and the audience wouldn’t and the script doesn’t stop to explain things because there aren’t any heroes present to ask what they’re talking about. That will come later. So they call their capsules SIDRATs, which is, of course, TARDIS spelled backward. A decade later, this story’s co-writer Malcolm Hulke novelized the adventure for Target Books, and explained that SIDRAT is an anagram for Space and Inter-time Dimensional Robot All-purpose Transporter.

Another thing that they say, just as casual as anything, is “Time Lord.” Right there at the beginning of part six, the Security Chief tells his scientist buddy that the War Chief is a Time Lord, a phrase that this series has never uttered before. That’s not followed up in these two episodes.

So on the villain front, the Aliens’ battlefield generals Von Weich and Smythe are both killed in these episodes, but Philip Madoc, who last appeared in this series as a character in “The Krotons” just four months previously, arrives as the Aliens’ leader the War Lord. He’s so beatnik that you expect him to tell his squabbling Security Chief and War Chief “Cool it, Daddio.” I love how these villains are constantly at each other’s throats.

One important acting note tonight: making what I believe was his TV speaking debut in the small role of Private Moore in part six was the star’s son, David Troughton. He’s had a fun and busy career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and more than a hundred television roles over nearly fifty years, and would later appear in this show opposite both Jon Pertwee and David Tennant, thirty-six years apart.

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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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