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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts three and four)

Good grief, what a mess. The only reasons to watch the second half of this story are to see Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen rising way above the material with wit and charm and sparkles in their eyes, and to say goodbye to Ian Marter and John Levene, who make their final appearances here. It’s the last UNIT story of the seventies – and no, it’s not an “epilogue,” it’s got precisely the same number of regular UNIT characters as “The Invasion” or “The Silurians,” even if Nicholas Courtney isn’t in it – but because nobody making the program had definitively decided that, we didn’t get a proper goodbye to any of the characters. The Fourth Doctor says many times that he hates goodbyes, but audiences kind of like them. It would have been nice to let the Doctor actually tell his old friends that he isn’t going to be their scientific adviser anymore, shake hands, and wave farewell.

Subbing for Courtney in part four is Patrick Newell as Colonel Faraday. I’m predisposed to like Newell, a fine character actor best known for the recurring role of Mother in the Tara King years of The Avengers, but the script doesn’t give him anything interesting to do and the only idea anybody had for him seems to be “don’t imitate Courtney.” When some anonymous soldiers turn up at the end of the season with UNIT badges – now that really is the epilogue, not this – Colonel Faraday isn’t with them. Corporal Bell had more screen time than Faraday.

As for the rest of it, it’s all just bad guys talking tough and not staying around to see the trapped hero’s doom, unbelievably gullible patsies who believe the best, that sort of thing. Mission Control is a blue chromakey screen hung in front of a black curtain while four technicians act like they’re in a Gerry Anderson show and spend about a full minute counting things down instead of showing us anything interesting. That’s because the visual effects are either more stock footage of American rockets, or director Barry Letts returning to his weird old trick of blue-screening actors in front of a photograph. Doctor Who was a low budget program, true, but this is one of the most egregious examples in the 1970s of just plain looking cheap.

And then there’s the eyepatch. I did warn my wife that one of the all-time “oh, baloney” moments is in part four. I think that somewhere, something went awry in rehearsals and they didn’t have time to do this right. Twice, the Doctor tells Milton Johns’ character “You’ve been brainwashed,” and I am perfectly willing to accept that part of that brainwashing was making the man think he lost an eye in a rocket crash. That would have been just fine. Except what we see on screen is Johns removing his eyepatch, and, instead of forcing himself to fight the brainwashing and the illusion and realize, dramatically, that his eye really is there, he just takes off the patch and boom! There’s his eye! Styggron has been lying all this time!

And except for there was no reason whatsoever for Styggron to make him think he was missing an eye. It is utterly irrelevant to the drama except to give the character a chance to realize the Kraals are evil, and to make him look like Scott McCloud, Space Angel, when he’s in his astronaut suit and helmet.

Our son wasn’t wowed by this deeply dumb moment, but he did enjoy this story much more than he was willing to admit yesterday. This is definitely Doctor Who for six year-olds. He confessed that he really wasn’t scared by the first half (we knew) and gave this a mostly thumbs-up. He didn’t like that there was an android duplicate of the Doctor, but he loved our hero having a brawl with it.

With that in mind, as I mentioned, this is the final appearance in the show for John Levene and Ian Marter. Levene largely left the acting business after this and has lived in California since the early 1990s. I was surprised to see that he made an appearance in Beetleborgs, one of those Haim Saban programs that repurpose Japanese sci-fi teevee footage into an otherwise American show. Marter appeared frequently on television and in movies in the 1970s and early 1980s and also became a writer. He specialized in both Who books for Target and, under the pen name Ian Don, other novelizations of feature films like Splash and the dinosaur movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. He passed away of a heart attack on his 42nd birthday in 1986.

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts one and two)

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Well, when I was in middle school, several of us were making our own sort-of versions of these. They were called Gamebooks, and my mate Blake, who you may recall from previous chapters about Doctor Who, developed them alongside his classmates Nathan Mize and Mark Hester. In a Gamebook, the front of a sheet of notebook paper was a densely-packed chapter of an adventure, with three options about what you would do next on the bottom of the page. You turned it over to see what would happen: usually, two options would have you dying, and only one left you able to proceed to the next chapter.

They started making these in early 1983, about a year before WGTV started showing Who, and some of the rest of us started copying them and eventually began writing our own stories. Probably close to a dozen of us kids made these over a three year period. They passed the time in class when we were bored and weren’t in the mood to draw comics. Over time, we’d change the rules and the format a little, incorporating coin tosses, die rolls, hit points, and alternating storylines, like the end of chapter one’s options might resolve to death, proceeding to chapter two, or proceeding to chapter three.

I mention all this because, inevitably, I made a sprawling Doctor Who Gamebook from my memories of the first seven stories that I saw, starting the Gamebook the morning after I first saw this in 1984. Sadly, this no longer exists – even more sadly, literally hundreds of pages of Who comics that I made between the ages of 13 and 15 do exist, and no, you can’t see them – but I mention it today because I clearly remember two key points about it.

One, I could not draw a Kraal to save my life. Granted, I was 12, and couldn’t draw much of anything to save my life, but I redid that dumb drawing of Styggron six or seven times and just could not do it.

Two, this Gamebook went on forever, with seven alternating storylines. Chapter 19 might have been a “Pyramids of Mars” chapter, with the results taking you to chapter 27 or 32, and chapter 20 might have continued the “Genesis of the Daleks” story, with results taking you to chapter 23 (where you’d reach the same grisly end that a wrong decision in chapter 15 might have sent you), 24, or 31. We didn’t write these things “by story,” we wrote them literally one chapter after the next, so there wasn’t any advance planning. And somehow or another, the Doctor Who Gamebook concluded after ninety-some or a hundred-odd chapters, and I hadn’t included a way out of the “Android Invasion” storyline. Every single option the Doctor had eventually led him to his death, because I didn’t include a chapter where he could win. It wasn’t the Daleks or Sutekh who finally killed our hero, it was the silly old Kraals!

Well, if you’ve been following along linearly instead of just reading the Doctor Who chapters, you may recall that our son needed a little light adventure after the horrors of the last couple of Who stories. “The Android Invasion” is perfectly placed for that. It sticks out like a sore thumb in season thirteen because it’s comparatively light and tame, and because the Kraals really aren’t much of a threat. The adventure was written by Terry Nation, and it was directed, for the last time, by former producer Barry Letts.

And, because our son has decided to be contrary, he’s telling us that this story is even scarier than “Pyramids.” We don’t believe him, because he isn’t reacting the same way that he does to real frights, but he’s chosen to insist that the situation is unbearably creepy and the Kraals are terrifying. The story is the sort of thing that Steed and Mrs. Peel might have investigated, before it takes an extraterrestrial turn, anyway, and he’s seen them tackle something similar twice already, so it isn’t that creepy. Deserted English village, weird clues about what’s going on, like brand new currency and telephones that only work sporadically… yes, this is very much like what Terry Nation concocted for programs like The Avengers or The Persuaders!, but bent into the Doctor Who shape.

One thing that I will give our son, though, is that he really didn’t enjoy most of the classic story from season seven, “Inferno,” because of the scenes where the Doctor confronts villainous duplicates of his friends. There’s a little echo of that here, as RSM Benton and Lt. Harry Sullivan appear to be working for the bad guys, but the Doctor figures it out at the end of part two. He and Sarah aren’t on Earth. It’s not just the white-suited “mechanics” that are robots. Everybody is, including Benton and Harry, and this village is a simulation, a testing site for the Kraals’ invasion of Earth.

It’s going to get a little bogged down and really silly in the second half, but I enjoyed these two parts quite a lot, despite some dopey plot holes. It’s a good example of the atmosphere being so entertaining that you can overlook the story’s minor deficiencies. Unless you just want to absolutely insist that you’re scared, anyway.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts three and four)

It’s funny how my son and I look at Doctor Who from totally different perspectives. For me, the show almost always starts strong and peters out as it goes, the initial mystery and atmosphere giving way to basic plotting and the world being doomed by this month’s threat. Fortunately, Who has enough charm, wit, and fun that it often doesn’t matter all that much.

But our kid keeps looking at it this way: Doctor Who is a scary, scary program where scary things keep happening and the bad guys have control of the situation for a very long time, and it scares the bejesus out of you, until finally the Doctor wraps things up and there’s usually a big explosion or two, at which point it becomes one of television’s great pleasures. Once again, he grimaced and hid through three episodes, only to rise cheering when the Zygon spaceship blows up, and when the Loch Ness Monster arrives in London for a few seconds before going home. It’s one of the all-time awful special effects. Kitten Kong was more convincing. Ah, well. It looked and sounded terrific up to then. We’ll allow director Douglas Camfield a few seconds of fumble in an otherwise glittering career.

Harry decides to stay on Earth after this adventure. We’ll see him again in a few weeks, along with John Levene’s long-serving character Benton, who had been promoted to warrant officer during the events of “Planet of the Spiders” and “Robot,” and promoted again to regimental sergeant major prior to this story. Even though the character is last seen in the series as RSM Benton, everybody always calls him Sergeant Benton.

Surprisingly, when they come back, it will be without the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney would have another acting commitment when the next, and final UNIT story of the seventies was made, and so this story becomes his swan song as a semi-regular. None of these three characters get a proper goodbye. Courtney would turn up again in three Who stories in the 1980s, and one installment of The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2008.

Between “Zygons” and Courtney’s next appearance in Who in 1983, Courtney mainly worked in the theater. He made occasional small guest star parts on TV, but bizarrely, a starring role in a sitcom was completely shelved for eleven years. In 1982, he starred opposite Frankie Howerd in a six-part series called Then Churchill Said to Me, with wacky hijinks set in that top secret wartime command bunker that Matt Smith’s Doctor once visited. The BBC, being as overcautious and oversensitive as ever, decided that they shouldn’t broadcast a comedy making fun of the military in the middle of the Falklands Islands crisis, but once it concluded, they just left it in the cupboard. It finally aired on a cable channel in 1993, and, if you’re a fan of Howerd’s humor like I am, it’s really an amusing show. I just think it stinks that Courtney was denied a starring part at a time in his career when he really could have used one.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts one and two)

And now back to September 1975 and season thirteen of Doctor Who. The season started with a very popular and well-remembered serial written by Robert Banks Stewart, directed by Douglas Camfield, and featuring my absolute favorite incidental music in all of Who, by Geoffrey Burgon. These three would also be responsible for making the season finale look and sound so good.

Camfield and Burgon’s work here is so atmospheric and so wonderful that anybody with a heart and soul would be happy to overlook the story, which is a by-the-numbers tale of alien monsters who speak in Alien Monsterese, with phrases like “centuries by your timescale” and “one Earth mile.” The Zygons are shapeshifters without a home planet, and they only appeared this one time in the original run of the show, but they’re so well remembered, in part because, well, never mind their dialogue, just look at that wonderfully gross design and the terrific costume! Anyway, everybody remembered the Zygons and their pet Loch Ness Monster from their childhoods, so they’ve come back in a couple of stories under Steven Moffat’s time as producer and have been referenced a couple of times more.

Our son was petrified by these episodes. He was so scared! He tells us that the most frightening scene was when the Doctor extracted the cast of the monster’s gigantic tooth. He also didn’t like Harry getting shot, the Zygon grabbing Sarah from behind in the corridor, and the Zygon trapping the Doctor and Sarah in the decompression room. He especially didn’t like the Zygon that was impersonating Harry hiding in the barn and getting ready to attack Sarah. Part two ends with the giant monster chasing the Doctor across the moor, and he didn’t like that either. His latest way to fend off scary beasts is to wrap his security blanket, “Bict,” around his head, instead of wadding it up in front of his face. He’s going to be doing that a lot this season!

Oddly, though, the revelation during the cliffhanger climax that the dinosaur-creature is the Loch Ness Monster rebounded without impact. Bizarrely, he did not know what the Loch Ness Monster was. If you were six years old in 1975, you knew about Nessie. If he ever has heard a reference to it, he’s forgotten. True, this kid doesn’t have a very good memory, but clearly this monster needs a new PR firm.

One note from my own youth, and seeing the TV movie of this story in February 1984: I absolutely loved it, of course, although I was still unclear how the heroes travel around. The story opens with the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah already in Scotland. I remember having a very hard time putting all this together. This was my third story. In “Genesis of the Daleks,” their transmat travel is intercepted by the Time Lords, and at the end, they use a Time Ring to go back to Nerva Beacon. They get inside a blue box at the end of “Revenge” – the same blue box that’s in the opening credits – and it vanishes. Is it a magic cabinet, or does the transmat beam send them in that protective “capsule” to their next destination? I guess when a show’s been on television for twelve years, there’s an assumption that some grownup in the audience can explain all this stuff to new viewers! Us poor kids watching the compilation movies late Saturday nights on PBS without any reference needed some help. And help was indeed on the way, as I’ll relate in a week or so.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part four)

If you were to ask me, the boring old Mr. Grouchy Adult that I am, I’d say that “Robot” could have been safely wrapped up in three episodes. But that would rob our son of his favorite part of the serial. The Brigadier blasts the robot with the disintegrator gun, and, thanks to a little technobabble magic, the robot grows to giant size.

From the boring light of adulthood, this doesn’t look particularly convincing, and while director Christopher Barry does as good a job as can be expected, something shows up in shot after shot that destroys a grown-up’s suspension of disbelief. At the very least, it genuinely does look better than those dinosaurs from a few stories ago.

But our kid adored it. He shouted “Whoops!” when the robot started growing and it was all as convincing to him as Hollywood’s latest bit of CGI mayhem. After that mid-serial lull, he completely loved this story, and he believed in it, because he’s six and hasn’t become jaded by special effects. The new Doctor’s off to a fine start for him, and, with Lt. Harry Sullivan joining the Doctor and Sarah in the TARDIS, it’s time for Barry Letts to leave the role of producer to the new man in charge, Philip Hinchcliffe. And we’ll see what his take on the series will be this weekend.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part three)

Beginning with the most important thing about tonight’s episode, our son was much, much happier with it. It’s full of action and explosions, and at the end, a tank shows up, which thrilled him to no end, as he knew instinctively that the tank would be disintegrated.

It’s also full of UNIT troops not using their brains very much. The villains and the robot escape from the SRS meeting because not one of the dozen or so soldiers thinks to shoot out their truck’s tires. Honestly, this story could have ended here and been a satisfying three-parter. All the business at the bunker is less entertaining than what’s come before. It’s never more entertaining than when the Doctor agrees with the Brigadier that only Great Britain could be trusted with international secrets, because the rest are all foreigners. That’s one of my favorite lines in the whole program.

Unfortunately, there’s a conclusion that will require some visual effects trickery, something not unlike what we saw in the story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” To make the joins a little less visible, if you take my meaning, the production team decided to mount this entire production on videotape. That way we won’t have the tank in part three (and the robot in part four) videotaped in the studio on a blue screen, and then chromakeyed into a 16mm film picture.

Part of me is glad that they learned from their earlier work, but another, bigger, part of me just loathes the look and feel of “outside broadcast” location video. This was only used sporadically until Doctor Who‘s last four seasons in the late eighties, when the whole program was taped. I’m absolutely fine with it in the studio, but sending those sorry camcorders on location just emphasizes the robot’s unreality to me. It’s a shame they couldn’t have taken both a film camera and an OB camera on location, videotaped the necessary bits for the visual effects team and filmed all the action stuff. It would have looked so much better.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part two)

I’m afraid I spoke too soon when I said last time that this is a straightforward and simple adventure for six year-olds. This episode introduces the plot complication that the villains, Miss Winters and Mister Jellico, are members of a fascist fringe group called the Scientific Reform Society, and that just left our son behind completely. The scene where Sarah puts on her journalism hat and trendy seventies clothes and gets some information from them might as well have been delivered in pig Latin, because he didn’t get what was happening at all!

Actually, what he really needs to take from this scene is that the delightful thing about watching old television is that we can time travel back to the days when outfits like that were the in thing. Once they put a stop to Winters and Jellico, Sarah’s going to wear this outfit when she interviews Elton John before his Saturday night gig at the Rainbow.

After starting well, this one’s obviously cratering a bit for him. He loved part one, was thrilled by the sight of the giant robot, and the Doctor’s oddball rudeness, including going to sleep on his lab table, is really fun for him. But then we not only got all talky with people who didn’t make sense to him, but also the Doctor has a cliffhanger confrontation with the robot that really looks like it’s going very badly for him.

It strikes me that seeing the Doctor in physical jeopardy and about to get beaten up isn’t a very common turn of events in the show. Another incident was the end of part three of “The Three Doctors.” He was also very, very aggravated when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was getting thrown around Omega’s “mind palace” by the villain’s weird pig-faced champion. Revealing a monster or a Dalek or a giant robot is a thrill, but seeing the hero get pummeled is emphatically not.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part one)

At the end of 1974, Tom Baker’s first episode of Doctor Who first aired. Writer Terrance Dicks believed that this should be a simple and straightforward adventure story for audiences to get used to the new lead actor, and he seems to have absolutely nailed how to hook any six year-olds in the crowd. Our kid loved this. There are no politics and no complicated “life in the seventies was like this” distractions about communes or meditation centers. There’s just a big stomping robot stealing the ingredients for a top secret disintegrator gun. Along the way, the Doctor checks himself out of the sick bay, frustrates UNIT’s medical officer, and tries on some new clothes. There’s not a six year-old on the planet who wouldn’t enjoy this.

Behind the scenes, this is a time of massive change. “Robot” was videotaped at the end of the same production block as Jon Pertwee’s last stories, making it the final story for Barry Letts as producer. He’ll be back in different capacities down the line, though. It’s the first story for Robert Holmes, who had written several memorable stories previously, as the script editor, but the previous script editor is still around! Terrance Dicks kind of shamelessly told the new boy that there was a BBC tradition that incoming script editors were expected to promptly commission a script from their predecessor. This way, while Dicks was no longer on the BBC payroll, he could still net some quick freelance work before his next assignment. The director is Christopher Barry, the veteran who had helmed several Who serials already, including Patrick Troughton’s first story.

Onscreen, UNIT, represented again by Nicholas Courtney and John Levene, has a new member, a naval medical officer called Harry Sullivan, played by Ian Marter. He had been up for the role of Captain Yates four years previously, and was cast because the original ideas for a new Doctor had been for an older and less active leading man. Famously, Richard Hearne and Fulton Mackay had been offered the part, but both of them turned it down – in Mackay’s case, because a sitcom pilot he’d done, Porridge, had been picked up as a series – and it went to Tom Baker, then forty years old and not getting nearly as much acting work as he should have had. His agent couldn’t find him anything after he’d filmed The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in the summer of ’73 and he was working with a construction crew in London to make ends meet while the movie was in theaters. The glamour of showbiz, folks.

And of course Elisabeth Sladen is back as Sarah Jane. This is one of the few times that we get to see her working as a journalist, and unknowingly – because, again, this is a simple story for the young viewers to easily manage – working the other end of the disintegrator gun angle. UNIT and the Doctor are looking into the thefts and she’s working on a story about the thieves, leading up to a memorable cliffhanger when the great big robot looms over her. We don’t see the robot in full just yet, which our son loved. He said that he now knows what its feet, hands, and head look like, and now he just needs to see the body and legs!

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