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Doctor Who: The Visitation (parts three and four)

So these are the Tereleptils, and I’ve always thought they were good-looking monsters. They made the interesting, and probably correct, choice, to give the one with the full animatronic mask the additional detail of being horrifically scarred and missing an eye. This unfortunately limited the aliens from ever returning to the show, because they’d have had to start from scratch and rebuild an entirely new head. Otherwise, you’d have dialogue like “You know, I met one of your species on seventeenth century Earth with wounds exactly like yours…”

Actually, they did reuse one of the non-animatronic heads for another alien that made a fleeting appearance in a story four seasons down the line. Perhaps they thought nobody would notice.

Fans and writers have thrown a lot of criticism at the producer of the show throughout the eighties, John Nathan-Turner, and as the program starts getting complacent and annoying – very soon now – I’ll have a lot to say about what I see as some very poor decisions. But let’s give him a round of applause for having that Tereleptil blow up the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver in part three of the story. Nathan-Turner believed that writers were using the device as a crutch instead of coming up with clever and inventive ways around problems. So when the screwdriver explodes, Marie told our son – who’s only seen the latest four episodes of what we call “the modern show” (and enjoyed them very much) – not to worry, that the Doctor can build another. But the beautiful thing is, he doesn’t, not for years.

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Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive (parts three and four)

The production team that had been working on Doctor Who in the late seventies, Graham Williams and Douglas Adams, had made mostly entertaining adventure stories that occasionally mentioned science as part of their narrative, but they were never really about science in the way that “The Leisure Hive” is. Unfortunately, it’s true that all this talk of tachyons doesn’t make a great deal of sense the way it’s depicted here, but it’s part of how the new team, John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead, wanted to approach the show.

So there are trappings of what we expect from Doctor Who, especially the revelation of a monster in an unconvincing costume. These guys with the breathtakingly obvious collars around their necks are called Foamasi, but, like the next several non-humanoid alien races we will meet, they aren’t an all-out evil bunch like yer classic Daleks or Zygons. There are four Foamasi in this story: two cops and two mobsters trying to shake down a city-sized science museum. Foamasi is an anagram of mafiosa, you see. There will be lots of anagrams in the years ahead, often in the cast list.

But the actual villain of the story is a misguided dreamer who schemes to misuse the science of tachyonics to “clone” his dying race by building copies of them that something something faster than light the original. Like I said, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but the villain isn’t quite your typical “I will conquer everything” Doctor Who baddie, either. We’ll see plenty more megalomaniacs and despots in stories to come, but once this character is de-aged into a baby, Adrienne Corri’s character flat out says that she hopes they can raise him right this time around, which is a pretty strong indication that the series wants to try new things.

Pangol isn’t evil in the traditional sense, and neither are some of the other antagonists in stories to come, even though some will do some awful and evil things. There should be more to this show than either the latest unconvincing costume of the monster of the month, or the latest guest star playing a pantomime villain of the month, and season eighteen really tries to come up with new types of foes for the Doctor to fight. So while “The Leisure Hive” is certainly flawed and odd, it really does succeed in being very new and different.

Unfortunately, while the cliffhangers to the first two episodes were both very successful in thrilling our son, part three’s finale just left him confused. The Foamasi are big, fat reptiles which can contort and suck in their bodies to wear human skin suits, much like the Slitheen would do twenty-five years later. It’s almost as though 2005’s Doctor Who episodes were written by fans who read the novelisations of old stories where these points were explained in greater detail than were shown onscreen and debated their effectiveness in fanzines and usenet or something. Hmmmm.

Anyway, so the cliffhanger shows the two police Foamasi, who communicate in a clicking, chirping language that even the Time Lords cannot understand, descending on two human characters, ripping off their skin suits and revealing them to be more Foamasi. Our son had no idea what was happening. He had forgotten the discovery of a skin suit in part two, and thought that the Foamasi had the hideous power of turning people into more reptiles like them. It’s almost a shame that’s not what actually happened, because that would have been a pretty grisly little plot development!

Overall he enjoyed the story. So do I. It isn’t a favorite, but it’s interesting and kind of a shame that the writer and director tasked with bringing the show’s new vision to life were never asked back. The writer, David Fisher, seems to have been passed over in the constant search for new blood, and the director, Lovett Bickford, ignored his budget and overspent so much that he wouldn’t be used again. Getting new talent is always a good and important idea, but as we’ll see next time, there’s something to be said for experienced scriptwriters.

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Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive (parts one and two)

Unless you are Indiana Jones, R.E.M. or Echo & the Bunnymen, the eighties were not your best decade. So it is with Doctor Who, whose final nine seasons were overseen by one producer, the late John Nathan-Turner. As we’ll see, in time the producer would become the most divisive figure in the program’s history, but I’m in the school that believes that he certainly started out very well.

The 1980-81 season really was a visual shakeup and it sounded incredibly different, too. Nathan-Turner let the show’s longtime main composer Dudley Simpson know that he was going to pass on his services and use new musicians. He and his first script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, accomplished what Douglas Adams couldn’t and found a pile of new writers. Only one person who had ever directed a Who serial before 1980 was invited back, and only three writers returned. Better still, the directors and designers seemed to be working from the same page at last, and they regularly created alien worlds that felt like they had a space and a believable existence beyond the locations where the plot sends our heroes.

The pantomime-style villains who’d dominated the Graham Williams run were mostly gone, and the Doctor stopped being an all-powerful know-it-all. Tom Baker’s overacting was toned down, and even K9 sounds less smug about everything. So seasons 18 and 19 did look and sound like a new and refreshed program, with some good stories and some that didn’t work so well. I think there are a couple of serials that should have been dumped at the script stage, but until we get to the tail end of Peter Davison’s first year (specifically a story called “Time-Flight” where practically every decision anybody made was the wrong one), even the misfires at least looked and sounded interesting. There’s a real sense that everyone working on the show wants to create engaging television that doesn’t follow a very obvious path.

With that in mind, David Fisher’s “The Leisure Hive,” which was the last serial that he’d contribute to the show, is incredibly interesting. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it compelling. The story suffers – at the script level – from some of the same old problems that plague all of television, especially when the speaking parts are so rationed that a lawyer from Earth suddenly becomes a prosecutor on an alien planet. But it looks and sounds so radically different from anything that Doctor Who had ever done, with surprising camera angles, closeups, and especially the lighting choices, that it’s more engaging on a visual level than the show almost ever was. Add a very modern synthesizer score by Peter Howell and it all adds up to something that is admittedly dated, but in 1980, it must have seemed incredibly refreshing.

It’s the only serial that was directed by Lovett Bickford, who passed away just a couple of months ago. Apparently he overspent so badly that he was never invited back, which is a shame. The main guest star is actress Adrienne Corri, who had done the usual run of guest parts in the fun ITC shows of the sixties and seventies but is best known for her small but memorable role in A Clockwork Orange. Laurence Payne, who had played Sexton Blake in a long-running late sixties show for Thames that is almost entirely missing from the archives, has a small part in episode one.

“The Leisure Hive” is famous for its first two cliffhangers, which first show an image of the Doctor being torn, bloodlessly, limb from limb, and secondly see him aged into an old man. I’m pleased to report that both of these moments succeeded in startling our son, and in fact he chose to hide behind the sofa instead of seeing the freaky sight of the Doctor’s arms and head popping away from his body. In the cold light of adulthood, it’s a dopey effect, but boy, was it ever effective!

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