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Doctor Who: The Five Doctors

When I was a kid and comics cost 35 or 40 cents, Superman’s father Jor-El was so recognizable that he was regularly merchandised. There were dolls and action figures of the guy. DC’s writers and editors were almost pathologically obsessed with telling stories of Superman’s home planet. There was a World of Krypton miniseries, and even the Legion of Super-Heroes time-traveled back to meet him. It was all very, very boring and unnecessary to me.

With that in mind, in Terrance Dicks’ anniversary adventure “The Five Doctors,” we finally say goodbye to the Doctor’s home planet for a good while. It is the most boring and unnecessary place for our hero to ever visit, and this stale feeling is driven home by the actors who play Time Lords. This is the fourth story in seven years set on Gallifrey and exactly one actor – Paul Jerricho, as Commissioner “Castellan” Gordon – appears in two of them. Even the most important supporting character, President Borusa, is played by four different actors. How are we supposed to feel any connection to any of these people?

Fans just love kvetching and kibitzing about “The Five Doctors” and all its missed opportunities, but I think the biggest one comes in not addressing these unfamiliar faces. When the Master is shown into the president’s office, he addresses the three people inside. He says “President Borusa, Lord Castellan,” and then Anthony Ainley should have looked at the woman and said “I have no idea who you are.”

But everyone loves “The Five Doctors” anyway, because it’s a lighthearted anniversary celebration and it’s fun to watch Pertwee, Troughton, and Courtney squabbling again. Yes, Peter Moffatt’s direction is incredibly pedestrian and slapdash (count how many times actors don’t respond to objects that are clearly in their sight line), yes, they could have at least given us one clear and well-lit shot of the Yeti, and yes, surely while stuck in the TARDIS, the strange alien teenager and the Doctor’s granddaughter could have found something more interesting to talk about than “what do you think the Cybermen are doing.”

Yes, the Doctor’s granddaughter is in this, but Carole Ann Ford is only allowed to play Random First Doctor Companion. She calls her Doctor “Grandfather” twice and that’s it. This is apparently because the producer at the time insisted on presenting the Doctor as an asexual figure to avoid British tabloid journalists making rude headlines about Peter Davison and his attractive female co-stars in short skirts. That’s another huge missed opportunity and a scene we should have had: the fifth Doctor introducing his granddaughter to Tegan and Turlough.

Our son mostly loved it, as you’d expect. He did that standard grumble about the Master and the Cybermen and a Dalek showing up, but then he went eyes-wide and jumped with a huge smile when he saw the Yeti. He loved the famous “Cyber-massacre” scene, where about nine of them get impaled and decapitated before firing a single shot, but his favorite part of the whole story was when the third Doctor and Sarah “zip-line” down to the top of the tower.

I really enjoyed teasing our son with the strange possible-continuity-error brainteaser about Jamie and Zoe. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury show up for a cameo as “phantoms” warning the second Doctor from going any deeper into the tower. The Doctor realizes that they’re fake when he remembers that Jamie and Zoe’s minds were erased of the period they spent with him. (The real error is that Troughton asks “So how do you know who we are.” They should both remember the Doctor, but Jamie shouldn’t know Zoe. Glossing over that, the important part is that neither should know the Brigadier. The line should have been Troughton pointing at Courtney while saying “So how do you know who he is.”)

It took our son a minute to wrap his brain around the problem. Where in his lifetime does the second Doctor come from if he knows about Jamie and Zoe’s memory wipe, when (we’ve been led to believe) that the very next thing that happened after the mind wipe was the Doctor regenerated and was shipped to Earth? I told him that we’d get a little more information about that in a couple of months, and that we’d see Patrick Troughton again in a different role in just a few days…

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Doctor Who: The King’s Demons (parts one and two)

Fans often ask what in the sam hill producer John Nathan-Turner was thinking, deciding that Doctor Who needed a robot companion. These fans often forget that they were ever kids. When I read that Radio Times / Starlog 20th Anniversary magazine back in 1984, I was incredibly anxious to meet Kamelion, and incredibly confused that while he’s listed right there on page 20 as a companion, he isn’t mentioned in the previews for any of the forthcoming adventures.

Our son quite liked the appearance of Kamelion as well. It distracted from the Master showing up again, to his growling disapproval. Kamelion came about when its designers showed the robot to Nathan-Turner, thinking that an appearance on Doctor Who might be good for business. Nathan-Turner kind of went a little overboard with enthusiasm and made the robot a companion. Unfortunately, the robot required too much time-intensive and laborious programming to be reliable for a seat-of-your-pants TV show with frequent last-minute script changes, and then its chief programmer was killed in a tragic accident at sea. So instead of having the robot transform into a guest star of the week until they could write it out, they just didn’t mention it in any way whatsoever until they could write it out. Kamelion is completely forgotten onscreen, although fan writers and novelists have made sure that the robot had many more adventures.

Actually, you know what Kamelion reminds me of? In 1991, the designers of a much bigger robot showed it to Universal, thinking that an appearance on some new TV show might be good for business. Universal then sold NBC on a two-hour pilot called Steel Justice, in which a cop magically brings his dead son’s toy robot to life, leading to a twenty-foot tall “robosaurus” breathing fire at bad guys. The big difference is that Kamelion is probably housed in somebody’s collection, while the “robosaurus” can probably be seen at a monster truck show near you next weekend. (Nobody believes me when I tell them this, because the robot is just so stupid, but the whole angle of magically animating your dead kid’s toys made parts of that film quite eerie and odd. Nevertheless, NBC didn’t buy a series. Can’t imagine why…)

“The King’s Demons,” which was the last Who adventure written by Terence Dudley, isn’t all that exciting, but it’s a simple and short story which has lots of swordfighting and a joust, and an interesting collection of guest stars. Gerald Flood plays the imposter King John and provides the voice of Kamelion. Isla Blair and Frank Windsor play the local barons who are caught in the Master’s plot. I enjoyed how Windsor and his Softly, Softly co-star Stratford Johns both showed up in The Avengers a few weeks apart in 1968. It’s not quite the same, but Johns had been in a Who in 1982 and Windsor popped in the following year.

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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: Terminus (parts three and four)

In whatever time zone this is, there’s a company that accepts some kind of payment to cure the degenerative Lazar’s Disease. Doing this as cheaply as possible, they’ve learned that a certain kind of radiation works sometimes. So the company enslaves a bunch of ex-military grunts and gets them hooked on a drug. They use them as labor, along with a big wolf-dog monster that is not affected by the radiation. The old space station where this radiation can be found via an engine leak is monstrously unsafe, but the Company figures they’ve got decades before it fails, so they pay their slave labor with drug supplies that arrive on an automated drone ship with the latest batch of Lazars. They sit back and profit while the money’s still good.

If “Terminus” had been about that, it might have turned out entertaining. But all these pieces aren’t even put together until the final episode, and so this isn’t a story about the Doctor overthrowing a profit-obsessed “health care” company. “Terminus” is actually all guff about an exploding engine ending the universe, and running up and down lots of corridors that are just plastic sheeting and duct tape. Actually, because the sets are so small, the actors never even run to prevent the end of the universe, they just walk with urgency.

And I’ll tell you what sounds like the end of the universe: the drug addict guards wear these uniforms which are layers of armored plates of plastic molded to look like copper with a design of bones. Every time the actors move, you hear the constant squeaking and thumping of the plastic plates rubbing and bumping against each other. I wish the next time this story gets remastered for home video, they’d work on the sound mix and edit all that out.

“Terminus” was Sarah Sutton’s last story as Nyssa, as her character stays behind to improve conditions on the old space station. Nyssa gets a sweet final scene with the Doctor and Tegan, but she doesn’t say goodbye to the new character Turlough, who isn’t going over well with my family. Discussion after the story was centered around why the Black Guardian has drafted somebody so utterly incompetent as Turlough to kill the Doctor, and why he didn’t make an offer to an assassin or someone like Boba Fett. I think it’s because “eh, that’ll do” seems to be the mission statement of the producer and script editor this season. No wonder it was around this time that Peter Davison decided that he’d finish his three year contract and move on.

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Doctor Who: Terminus (parts one and two)

This being my blog and all, I wanted to indulge myself with a detour, but wasn’t sure where it would go. Then I remembered that Stephen Gallagher’s “Terminus” is one of the most boring Doctor Who stories ever and I didn’t want to watch it in the first place, let alone write about it. And it was taped toward the end of 1982, which I think was an important year when you’re talking about the look and feel of a videotape production versus a filmed one.

In the seventies, I think that there was a different perception. Doctor Who was made the way that most British television was made in the 1970s. It was three-camera, as-live videotape in the studio. There certainly were exceptions. All the programs that were made, typically by ITC, with an eye on sales to the United States were made on film, and so were a handful of shows, like The Sweeney, that were made by Euston Films. But the bulk of British programming from the seventies was made on color videotape. I love watching this style of production. It’s my comfort TV, if I may borrow that fine blog‘s title. Who may have been set on spaceships or on other planets, but it still looked and felt more like Upstairs, Downstairs than Battlestar Galactica.

But expectations changed, and I’m afraid that you can thank America for that. One of the first places that younger audiences saw a change in expectations was in the world of music videos. MTV launched in August of 1981 and needed lots and lots of programming. Certainly before MTV, you occasionally saw videos here and there. Broadly, and admitting there were exceptions, the American acts used 16mm film and many of the British ones used tape. Stacked back-to-back on MTV, no matter how popular Duran Duran was to become among its growing audience, their video for “Planet Earth” looks like the cheapest thing in the universe when you play it immediately after even a zero-effort performance clip of the J. Geils Band, which is why EMI shelled out for film for Duran Duran’s next clip, “Careless Memories.”

So during 1982, videotape started vanishing from the pop music world. Much as documentaries might try to convince you that the “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Save a Prayer” clips ushered in a life of lavish overspending, these were exceptions to the rule, and the era of “big budget” productions, usually for Madonna and Michael Jackson, was a few years in the future.

Film wasn’t egregiously more expensive than tape, even with extras, cars, and pretty girls, but it became necessary around 1982. So Spandau Ballet’s “To Cut a Long Story Short” was on tape and “Chant No. 1” wasn’t, the Cure’s “Charlotte Sometimes” was on tape and “The Hanging Garden” wasn’t, all of Roxy Music’s clips through “More Than This” were on tape and “Avalon” wasn’t. 1982 was the last year Kate Bush did clips on videotape. Bowie was all-tape on RCA and film on EMI. (Incidentally, and bizarrely, the 1980 clip for “Fashion” wasn’t actually videotaped in the UK; it was made in New York City.) Adam Ant’s classic clips were on tape and the later ones that nobody remembers weren’t, and Culture Club had the good sense to never use tape in the first place.

A special note here about the Human League: they had several chart hits that never had videos at all, but they were omnipresent on videotape on programs like Top of the Pops, which is where young audiences learned that the lip-synced performances would be on tape, but the video clips weren’t. When the Human League did make their first video, for “Don’t You Want Me,” they’d “graduated,” in a sense. I’m going on like this because in 1982, this really did matter for the audience that Doctor Who should have been cultivating. Tape was not the medium for music videos any longer, so, in the eyes of the newest generation of TV viewers, it shouldn’t be the format for anything else, either.

Around the same time, the British television industry started taking larger steps away from tape. Again, you might can blame America. There were “prestige” productions, most obviously of Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, but these only reinforced the view of what was achievable. By 1984, even a character as popular and accessible as Sherlock Holmes would be made on film rather than tape. Granada’s very successful series, which starred Jeremy Brett as the definitive Holmes, was made with co-production money from WGBH in Boston, which led every television company in Great Britain to start knocking on WGBH’s door looking for capital. Almost all of the many resulting co-productions were made on 16mm film. It was no longer just the ITC factory looking at American sales; it was everybody. (And can you imagine a videotaped Inspector Morse?)

While there were still many British programs made on tape, even into the mid-nineties, these seemed ever-increasingly cheap and nasty in the face of what the rest of television looked like. There’s a reason why seventies children’s serials like Sky and Children of the Stones are fondly remembered in hushed tones, but people giggle about 1996’s Neverwhere looking “cheap.” Yet Neverwhere honestly looks exactly like its forerunners. Another favorite example: the characters in the hilarious and very meta “Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” a Comic Strip Presents episode shown in 1993, dismissively sneer at the police soap opera The Bill because it’s on tape.

Madly, because of the way that its budget changed, Doctor Who doubled down on video in 1986, and stopped using film entirely, even for the exterior scenes. I wonder whether things might have been different had the 1986 season been six or seven individual hour-long episodes, made on film. That fall, Who was getting absolutely killed in the UK ratings by, of all things, The A-Team. The ten year-olds of 1986 knew cheap when they saw it.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part four)

The dude on the right is Mawdryn, played by David Collings, a character actor that everybody loves and who we saw a few months ago in “The Robots of Death”. He and his seven fellow mutants are not wearing the most fashionable in outer space wear. Marie called their clothes “terrible bridesmaid dresses.” Even when you’re missing a chunk of your scalp, it’s hard to look menacing dressed like that.

But Mawdryn isn’t a traditional villain. He and his gang stole some Time Lord tech several centuries ago and have been trapped in perpetual, mutating rejuvenation ever since. All they want now is to die, and by chance, the Doctor has shown up. Apparently he can exchange the potential energy from each of his remaining eight regenerations to kill all eight of the gang, but he’ll never be able to regenerate again himself. As motivations go, I think that’s incredibly original. It’s also a little convenient, what with the numbers working together like they do, but that’s fiction for you.

I’m glad to say our son came around in the end. As I remembered, there’s a good bit of padding in part four, reminding everybody of the plot, emphasizing all the relevant points again and again, but there are enough moral dilemmas and runarounds to keep things moving, and our son was very happy with the adventure. It even ends with an explosion! It may not be a great story, but it made a splendid recovery from that lousy opening installment.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (parts two and three)

Our son is putting on his usual airs of the story being “too creepy,” but he’s really synced in with the adventure. There’s a bit in part three where Tegan, keeping watch in the corridor, spots the seven mutants gliding her way and she jumps back to warn everyone. Our kid jumped right in time with her, leaving his shoes behind.

The problem with “Mawdryn Undead” is that it could have been the best two-part story the show ever made in its original run, and the best by a mile. It might have made an excellent three-parter. Unfortunately, it’s lumbered with that godawful opener, and I’m afraid part four will kind of run in place a bit to fill its running time. But these middle episodes are just cracking with imagination and originality. Once the story finally decides to place the Brigadier in the center of things – two Brigadiers, in 1977 and in 1983! – Nicholas Courtney gets to really shine. And who can’t sympathize with our old friend when he grumbles about “yomping up that wretched hill” three times in one afternoon?

I really think that all of Steven Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stories from his run have their genesis here. When Moffat was a fanboy, he wore out his off-air videotape of this adventure from rewatching it over and over.

Of course, another thing our son’s pretending to be aggravated with is the return of Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian, after his brief but memorable appearance in part six of “The Armageddon Factor” a little over three years previously. About the only thing I don’t like about these episodes is the casual way the Doctor has decided to just take Turlough’s knowledge of alien science at face value without challenging him on it. Clearly he knows something is up with this kid – and since, despite casting an obvious twentysomething in the role, Turlough can’t be much older than seventeen to still be at this posh private school – even though he doesn’t know that the Black Guardian is the one manipulating him.

Dyall is amazing, a real force of nature. After he gets done yelling at Turlough in the school clinic, I want to go give the poor fellow a hug and order him some milk and cookies to calm his nerves. And I don’t even like Turlough.

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