Say what you will about “Warriors of the Deep,” but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen Ingrid Pitt try to kick a pantomime horse to death.
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Our son tells us “there are two adjectives to describe this story: exciting and creepy!” That’s very generous of him. I’d have gone with “embarrassing and idiotic” myself.
“Warriors of the Deep” is the third and last serial for Doctor Who written by Johnny Byrne. It features the return of director Pennant Roberts, who never could stage a gunfight and, as we see here, still can’t. It also sort of features the return of the Silurians and the Sea Devils, only they’ve both been redesigned to look stupider and more fake than they did in the seventies, and the actors inside the ungainly costumes have been given instructions to move and talk as slowly as possible. I mean, the Silurians of 1970 moved and shouted like they were incredibly angry and frightened. These Silurians move and talk like they are drunk and the walls won’t stop moving.
Into all this mess, we’ve got a TARDIS that can get blasted out of orbit by a 21st-century satellite, a Doctor who is acting absolutely unhinged and decides to overload a nuclear reactor as a distraction, and returning villains scripted by a writer whose research went no further than a paragraph summary of the earlier stories in a Jean-Marc Lofficier guidebook. And there’s Ingrid Pitt and a pantomime horse.
Six weeks before this was shown, Doctor Who celebrated its twentieth anniversary, leading some bean counters and muckity-mucks at the BBC to ask, not unreasonably, why in heaven they’d let this silly show run for twenty years. Maybe twenty years was long enough, some of them said. Then this gets on the air.
By far the most interesting thing about “Arc of Infinity” is that all the location filming was done in Amsterdam in the summer of 1982. Unfortunately, the story feels like it tries its best to have as little to do with Holland as possible in favor of deeply boring political intrigue on the Doctor’s home planet. Most of this serial’s faults could have been overcome by setting the whole story on Earth. They could have, for instance, had Michael Gough’s gone-bad Time Lord working in league with some human criminal who lived in Amsterdam to bring Omega back.
Oh yes, Omega, by far the least interesting thing about “Arc of Infinity,” or at least the way it’s presented. Not content with recasting all the characters who were seen the last time we were on Gallifrey four years before, they also recast the villain, and gave him a costume which wasn’t a patch on the iconic original that we saw in “The Three Doctors” a decade previously. I don’t think Omega’s even been mentioned in the program since 1973, but the show is working under the assumption that everybody watching the program knows exactly who he is.
In fairness, “The Three Doctors” had been repeated by the BBC a little over a year earlier, but this is part of that sense of complacency I mentioned earlier today. A little over a year is a lifetime in little kid terms; we watched that story thirteen months ago and it took a good bit of poking for our seven year-old to recall that the second Doctor teamed up with the third in the first place, let alone who the villain was. It’s here that we really start getting evidence that the people making the program are doing so for an audience that’s already completely committed, buys all the books, reads all the magazines, and can tell you who all the recurring villains and characters are when they turn up.
Mind you, I’m not opposed at all to villains and characters making return visits. Now I do think there needs to be a “ground zero” every few years, like we’re experiencing with Jodie Whittaker’s run right now, which doesn’t relive past glories for several weeks and lets a new audience in. But I like old faces and foes. However, these either need to be done as subtle winks and Easter eggs, or they need to be done properly, with an honest attempt at reintroduction. I mean, at no point in this story’s narrative do they even explain who Omega is; they just figured that all seven million who watched this on its original broadcast knew already. This will get worse before it gets better.
For what it’s worth, while our son was confused by the villain, he really did enjoy the story, and thought it was very exciting and creepy. He took the revelation of the baddie with a shrug; what really confused him was a street scene where the regenerated Omega joins a small crowd around a draaiorgel barrel organ. He’d never seen anything like that and needed to be reminded that once upon a time, we didn’t have the option of listening to music on our phones!
For Thanksgiving, we’re watching this turkey! Gobble, gobble!
Season twenty’s where it all falls apart for me. There are still some terrific stories ahead in the next four seasons – they average about one classic a year – and some great moments here and there, but overall there’s a sense of… I guess complacency. There’s an overriding sense of “that’s good enough” in the scripting and the design and the direction.
That said, Johnny Byrne’s “Arc of Infinity” does have one nice moment in its first two parts (and I admit I cheated; the image above is from part three). There are two plots running parallel at first: a pair of young hitchhikers sleeping in an old crypt in Amsterdam, and the Doctor and Nyssa having a contest of technobabble and continuity in space. It looks like our heroes will be materializing in the Netherlands, and we hear the TARDIS sound effect… but it’s somebody else’s ship, apparently piloted by the weird turkey monster on the left in the picture above. I like the misdirection.
The turkey monster is called an Ergon, and at no point in this story does it ever move convincingly enough to fool anybody into thinking that it’s an alien monster that grew up knowing how to move its own muscles. It moves like an underpaid actor wearing fifty pounds of latex, flippers, and a tall floppy hat.
At least there’s Amsterdam, and some other notable actors, all probably also underpaid. Janet Fielding is back as Tegan, conveniently reentering the Netherlands part of the plot while the Doctor and Nyssa get to do breathtakingly boring outer space stuff on Gallifrey. Last time we were stuck here, in “The Invasion of Time”, we had a completely different set of actors as Borusa, the High Council, the Castellan (Commissioner Gordon), and the commander (Chief O’Hara). This time, a future star of the show, Colin Baker, is playing Chief O’Hara, and Paul Jerricho, who will be back in a few stories to deliver one of the all-time great bad Doctor Who line readings, is Gordon. On the High Council, there’s Elspet Gray, who was the clueless mom in the second series of Catweazle, and starred-in-everything cult TV legend Michael Gough as an old friend we’ve never heard of before.
There are five suspects in the mystery of who on Gallifrey has betrayed the Doctor. Four of them either don’t like the Doctor very much or are generally indifferent to him. One is played by an internationally recognizable actor who greets our hero with smiles and phrases like “My dear Doctor!” and is trying ever so hard to keep our hero from being executed. I wonder who the traitor could possibly be.
Memory’s a tricky thing. Every once in a while, our son will just toss a random Doctor Who fact my way, suggesting that he thinks about some old episodes from time to time. But he doesn’t recall the Master’s last appearance, in “The Deadly Assassin”, at all. We only watched it in April. But it’s also true that he didn’t actually enjoy that story even a little bit.
So part three of “The Keeper of Traken” ends with the not-completely-surprising revelation that the Master is behind the plot, and that his TARDIS – he has two! – has been standing in place as the Melkur statue for something like a decade. Inside, he’s evidently been healing somewhat, because he doesn’t have the hideous skeleton eyes that Peter Pratt wore as the Master in “Assassin.” Geoffrey Beevers plays the Master this time out. Fanon suggests that Pratt and Beevers are each playing the thirteenth and final incarnation of the Master… which is where Anthony Ainley comes in.
Whatever you think of “Traken,” you can’t deny it has a very unique finale. The Doctor and Adric have saved the day, with the assistance of their friends Tremas, played by Ainley, and his daughter Nyssa, and make their customary hasty exit. But the story doesn’t end like we think it should. In a devilishly mean-spirited epilogue, we see that the Master had a second TARDIS parked inside the Melkur-TARDIS, and, using the power he’d somehow absorbed from the Traken Source, he takes over and steals Tremas’s body, clicks his heels and leaves to go cause some chaos dressed in black and with the customary Master mustache and beard. Nyssa’s left to wonder where her father went.
Ainley seems like he was an incredibly interesting fellow. By 1981, he was about ready to retire from acting and just play cricket at leisure, because he’d inherited what many people report was a very, very large amount of money. Who‘s producer, John Nathan-Turner, remembered Ainley from a BBC series he’d worked on in 1974 called The Pallisers and thought he’d be a perfect Master, and then, far too frequently, didn’t commission any decent scripts for him. Ainley had also co-starred in a downright odd ATV spy series called Spyder’s Web which I probably enjoy more than you do, although John at the Cult TV Blog has also celebrated its prickly strangeness, and he was in The Land That Time Forgot and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a fine character actor finally landing a role everybody would remember.
I’m reasonably certain our son won’t forget Ainley’s version of the Master. Reasonably. We’ll see him again very, very soon. But I was really surprised by how thoroughly he had forgotten the Pratt incarnation. During the closing credits of part three, I asked him whether he was surprised to see the Master again. After all, he did just freeze, give a shocked face, and tumble to the floor when Beevers turns to the camera chuckling. But at the end of the story, he told us he really liked this one, but didn’t understand “just one thing… when that showed us that it was the Master, how’d you know it was the Master?”
And I guess he had a point. Even for viewers with longer memories, it had been four years since the Master’s previous appearance…
Earlier this month, when I wrote about “The Leisure Hive”, I talked about how in this season, there’s a greater sense of real space in the environments. Every story we’ve watched has great examples, particularly the Starliner in “Full Circle,” but the planet of Traken is the best of them all. It’s not just having more sets and extras than the obvious example, Peladon, it’s having characters with lives that seem to have existed before the plot of the month came crashing down atop them. This is what a later producer, Russell T. Davies, sensibly understood about making the world of the show feel real, and what his successor, Steven Moffat, frequently forgot.
So while I don’t love “The Keeper of Traken,” I absolutely admire it. The writer, director, designer, and composer are all working in fabulous synchronicity. It’s a good story, not a great one, but it’s a truly fine production. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Johnny Byrne, and, sadly, by some measure the best of his three. Byrne came to Who by way of All Creatures Great and Small, where he had worked with Who‘s producer John Nathan-Turner and been the script editor for that show’s first three series. Before that, he had written about a quarter of Space: 1999.
In the cast, we’ve got twenty year-old Sarah Sutton playing Nyssa, a character who, like Adric, appears meant to be a young teenager. John Woodnutt makes his final Who appearance, and Anthony Ainley, about whom, more later, makes his first. Denis Carey and Sheila Ruskin are also very memorable in their parts here.
Our son might have liked this story a little less than he claimed, because he was pretty restless and seemed frustrated by the mystery. The serial is centered around an evil being called a Melkur that, like others before it, turned to stone as soon as it landed on Traken about a decade previously. The planet has a bio-electric power source that freezes and calcifies intruders with evil intent, which is a whimsical, fairy tale-like idea given a sci-fi sheen that doesn’t quite make sense but just feels right. That’s another way that the production triumphs, by taking this odd idea and making it work, against the grumbling of anybody who wants to be critical about it. But the evil being is, of course, just biding its time and literally growing moss waiting for the incredibly powerful Keeper of this planetary system to die.
I think the director does reveal a little too much too soon, but whatever Melkur is, he’s the second villain this season, after Meglos, to know that the Doctor is a Time Lord and is prepared to deal with him. Perhaps this is an early indicator of the Doctor’s reputation preceding him, or perhaps we’re starting to get people behind the scenes who are much, much more interested in the program’s past and its continuity than ever before.