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Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit (parts three and four)

Last night, before we learned that the gigantic green blob in the pit was an imprisoned alien ambassador and thought it was a hideous monster, our son suggested that once K9 zapped the creature they could use its body for a bouncy house. His mother had a simpler observation: “They thought a scrotum monster was a good idea?”

It’s certainly true that when Doctor Who‘s special effects hit this kind of rock bottom, they overwhelm any and all possible other topics of conversation. But I will say that if you can either ignore or just laugh about this amazing lapse of judgement, taste, and common sense, this story really has lots of very funny moments as well as Geoffrey Bayldon being incredibly entertaining. I laughed out loud several times, at the right moments. I spent most of the eighties pretending that 74,384,338 was my lucky number as well. Our son enjoyed this one, too. It was neither creepy nor scary, he confirms. It’s just a simple, straightforward adventure with nothing truly horrifying. Perhaps one day he’ll revisit the earlier Tom Baker adventures that frightened the life out of him, but he’s clearly much happier with this end of the shock scale.

The story also has Myra Frances going deep in search of the most ridiculous pantomime villain trophy and she’s kind of awful to watch as she sneers and snarls, but in fairness to the actress, when the script includes such bad guy chestnuts as “Have a care, Doctor!” then it’s kind of hard for any performer to be subtle. Francis is about to have some real competition in this category. Lewis Fiander and Graham Crowden are right around the corner. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit (parts one and two)

I’ll tell you how to make sure the seven year-olds in the audience boo and hiss your villainy. Slap Romana in the face and order your guards to break K9 down into scrap. We’re watching the much-maligned “The Creature From the Pit,” written by David Fisher and directed by Christopher Barry, and the main bad guy is a Snidely Whiplash type called Lady Adrasta, played by Myra Frances. She’s a pure pantomime villain, one of many reasons this story isn’t very highly regarded, and our son just loathes her. Team her up with Count Grendel from “The Androids of Tara” and I’m not sure which of them will nya-ha-ha-ha! the loudest.

No, among the DR WHO IS SRS BSNSS crowd, “Creature” is one of those stories that makes people spit fire because they hate it so much. A big problem is the creature itself – more about that next time – but Adrasta’s comedy villainy doesn’t help, and a gang of very stupid bandits really is the limit. I’ve read people grumble that the bandits are played for laughs but they aren’t funny. No, they’re played for laughs among seven year-olds, which makes them very funny to that audience, although not really anybody older than that. Add in Tom Baker looking like he’s having a great time being silly and having fun at the expense of the drama, and some very Douglas Adams comedy about the Doctor reading Beatrix Potter and teaching himself Tibetan and you’ve got a story that isn’t serious in the slightest, but it’s mostly very fun to watch.

Helping matters: down in the pit eking out a meager existence while hiding from the mysterious creature, it’s our old pal Geoffrey Bayldon in the role of an astrologer who got on the villain’s bad side some time previously. It took a gentle prod, but our son did recognize who Bayldon was. “…Catweazle?” he asked, and I cheered inside. Marie’s pretty lousy recognizing actors as well. “Even I knew who that was,” she smiled.

This leads me to a fingers crossed moment. “The Creature From the Pit” was taped shortly after the first series of Worzel Gummidge was made. Bayldon co-starred with Jon Pertwee in this completely wonderful and anarchic comedy. The show has been released on DVD, but I’ve never read a good word about the quality of the film prints, so I decided against buying it, hoping against hope that the show might be restored and rereleased before our son gets too old to care. (The beat-up old VHS boots I had in the mid-nineties were bad enough!) Well, last week, we got a hesitant step toward that pipe dream: a complete set of negatives for all thirty of the British-made episodes was discovered. We’re hoping for more information soon!

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Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor (parts five and six)

We finished up the Key to Time storyline/season this morning with what our son really believed is one of the most epic Doctor Who adventures ever. He completely loved this one, despite a few hissing villain roadblocks along the way. I also enjoyed this a lot more than I remembered, despite the interior of Shadow’s planet – slash – space station looking… well, it’s not so much that it’s fake, because lots of Doctor Who environments look fake. It’s that I kept expecting a bunch of kids to run in and start playing laser tag in it. It’s that kind of fake.

The best thing about it, though, is the introduction of Barry Jackson as a failed Time Lord called Drax. The character is just incredibly entertaining, and he and Tom Baker seem to have a great rapport. The Doctor, who apparently went by the name/designation “Theta Sigma” at the Time Lord academy and does not want to be reminded of it, asks Drax where he got the remarkable Souf Lundun accent and slang that he uses. Apparently, Drax was arrested (“got done”) in London some time back and spent ten years in stir. There’s absolutely no reason to nail this decade down to any given time period – I mean, Drax could be getting arrested right now in 2018 for all we know – but it amuses me to imagine that at the same time that the Doctor was exiled to Earth and fighting the Master, Drax was cooling his heels in HM Prison Brixton. Best moment of the whole story: Drax, on his way back to his TARDIS, telling the Doctor and Romana that he’s “done” a deal with the marshal of Atrios to provide reconstruction services for his planet, half an hour from now.

While Drax was sadly never seen again in the show, we do meet a new villain that will come back down the line: the Black Guardian. Valentine Dyall had a film career as long as your arm but was best known for his role hosting and narrating a radio series called Appointment with Fear. This anthology of horror stories ran for more than a decade on the BBC, and Dyall’s downright evil voice was known to pretty much every parent who sat down to watch this story in 1979, recognizing something terrifying from their own childhood.

So a couple of weeks ago, our son speculated that the third segment of the Key to Time could be a person. Today, we learned that the sixth segment was indeed a human being, which is how the Doctor unmasks the Black Guardian. At the end of the story, the Key is split into six parts again, hopefully leaving the poor Princess Astra to live her life in peace. Marie asked whether they’d ever need to turn a person into a Key segment again, and our son suggested that instead, one of the segments should disguise itself as “the worst tasting hot dog ever.” Well, if it sits around for decades waiting for somebody to come collect it, it probably would taste a little lousy.

So a couple of goodbyes to note this time. I’ve already noted that this was Dave Martin’s final script contribution. He did some more work in television but mainly wrote novels after this. He passed away in 2007. This was also Anthony Read’s final story as script editor. Douglas Adams had already been hired to replace him in the role, and apparently he worked on some of the rewrites of this adventure with Read. In that BBC way, we’ll see Adams commission Read to write a story in the next season.

Sadly, Mary Tamm decided to bow out with this story, and didn’t return to tape a farewell scene, which led to a pretty fun decision about what to do with the character of Romana. I don’t see that Tamm had any really major roles after this one, but she was regularly seen in guest parts on British television for the next thirty years and “gave good anecdote,” as they say, on the convention circuit. My older son met her in 2009 at a show in Atlanta that I didn’t attend, and came back with stars in his eyes. She died from cancer three years later at the horribly young age of 62.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who, but we’ll start season seventeen in August. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor (parts three and four)

I’m enjoying this one much, much more than I did the last time I watched it. The Doctor’s first confrontation with his mysterious opponent, the Shadow, is full of great dialogue, and there’s a real sense that our heroes have an absurd amount of things to do, with one genuine obstacle after another. None of it feels like padding, and after the writers’ last two stories for the show the previous year (“The Invisible Enemy” and “Underworld”), neither of which I enjoyed, this feels like they’re back on form. This was Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s last Who serial as a team, although Baker would write a solo adventure in the next season, and Dave Martin would write a few of the tie-in books in the 1980s.

In fact, the only scenes in this story that are at all long-winded are the ones where K9 communicates with the Evil Supercomputer that runs the planet Zeos. There are lots of long pauses, sped-up tape computer noises, and sound effects. It kind of gets in the way of the slapstick. Tom Baker and guest star Davyd Harries get to hide from each other in weird corridors and be silly, which delighted our son and probably kept Baker amused at a point where he was losing interest and yelling at everybody. Good thing one of the other guest stars, Lalla Ward, was around to keep him smiling.

Our son really thought these two parts were incredibly exciting, especially when Atrios’s marshal launches his attack on Zeos, which will trigger a doomsday device in retaliation, like Dr. Strangelove. He was completely thrilled by this, but incredibly aggravated by the cliffhanger revelation that the Shadow has abducted K9 and put one of his little black control boxes on him. K9 now calls the Shadow his master! He was incensed, and refused to agree that this is a good adventure at all, just because that ending had him so riled.

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Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor (parts one and two)

The Key to Time story makes its way to the finish line with this story written by veterans Bob Baker and Dave Martin. It’s got John Woodvine as the main villain – so far – and guest stars Lalla Ward as the mysterious Princess Astra.

The story’s kind of “Genesis of the Daleks”-lite, and it shares that story’s problem with creating a believably large environment. Lots of Doctor Who stories have this issue, but the heavily radiated K section of Atrios looks to be about one corridor away from the main control room. It’s a story where I have more than a little trouble suspending belief, but I do like the way that the Doctor pretends quite deliberately that he’s really dumb enough to fall into the marshal’s traps. Tom Baker seems to be having more fun in this story than usual. Maybe he really likes a guest star or something.

Our son was initially pretty restless with the situation but calmed down and started worrying as we learn more about the marshal’s strange controller. He’s talking to a skull that’s perched on a pedestal on the other side of a mirror, and he knows that the Doctor is a Time Lord. Our kid says that this one started out a little scary, but that it is really, really creepy overall. Then again, he was also being distracted by the promise of new (old) video games to play tonight!

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Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara (parts three and four)

Count Grendel isn’t exactly a subtle villain; he’s more from the Snidely Whiplash school of baddies. This makes him a phenomenally effective enemy for any seven year-olds in the audience. Our son loved to hate this guy, and named him “the most jerk in the history of people who are jerks!”

I think Peter Jeffrey knew exactly how to pitch his performance to this age group. Part three of the adventure is definitely of the “escape and run around just to get recaptured” school of Doctor Who third parts, but the big set piece is the Doctor getting out of a trap that the count has set. Four of Grendel’s guards all go down in a group when K9 zaps them, and Grendel gives this unbelievably cartoon-like reaction, and our son exploded laughing. Then in part four, Grendel ties Romana to the railroad tracks – er, I mean, schemes to force her to marry the injured king, and our son did everything but boo and hiss like the crowd at a pantomime.

So no, not very much nuance in this story, but there is a pretty good swordfight in part four, and K9 gets left adrift in a little boat, and our kid loved that, too. Since the first half of the story left him grumbling, it’s good that everything got turned around in the end.

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Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara (parts one and two)

“The Androids of Tara” is the second serial written by David Fisher – second in a row, which is pretty unusual – and the fourth story in the Key to Time adventure. It features Peter Jeffrey in a remarkably entertaining role as the absurdly nasty Count Grendel, and there’s a small part for the veteran Who guest star Cyril Shaps as a court official.

Our son is utterly lost and confused by the story, which I’d say was a simple enough story of court intrigue, deception, and identical doubles on a medieval planet, but the rules of the planet’s monarchy had him grumbling questions about why everything has to be done in this silly way. Perhaps he wasn’t in the right mood tonight; usually he just goes with the flow. Or possibly he’s impatient for space monsters. He picked out “The Power of the Daleks” to rewatch this afternoon while we were home together. I’d tell him to hang on, they’ll be back really soon, but I don’t want to spoil things.

A big reason I’m against spoilers right now of all times is because “Tara” is the story where, for me, Doctor Who stopped being this strange program that nobody in my circle knew anything about, and became something past tense that I could read about. If you scroll back through this category, you’ll see me mention the 20th Anniversary magazine several times. I know that my friend got that magazine right before WGTV showed “Tara” because on page 22, there’s a photo of Mary Tamm wearing the purple outfit you see in the picture above. Also on that page, there’s a photo of Lalla Ward. And that was the sad problem. I went from knowing nothing to knowing more than I really wanted to know.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. I was looking forward to the next two Doctors and the imminent return of the Daleks and the eventual return of the Cybermen, and Kamelion certainly looked interesting. Oh, well. Some of the magazine left me incredibly confused, though. Since I didn’t realize that we were seeing edited compilations of the serials, I just understood that Doctor Who was a 90-minute show. So I didn’t quite understand why they were making such a fuss over “The Five Doctors” being a 90-minute special, and I was blown away by the implications of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” being a twelve-episode adventure. Imagine an eighteen hour-long Doctor Who story. I sure did.

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Doctor Who: The Stones of Blood (parts three and four)

I always love it when our son is paying close enough attention to notice something that I didn’t. This time, he spotted that the prop hyperspace dematerialization thing on the tripod that they took on location was lacking the big yellow lever that the one they used in the studio had. What a good eye for detail. I always have to read about these things. He really enjoyed this one, I’m glad to say.

In part three of this story, there’s an incredibly effective scene where two campers wake up to find the huge sentient stones parked outside their tent. When the girl touches one, it starts glowing and killing them both, and the last we see of these two characters is her arm being drained away into nothing but bone.

Four people are killed in this story, and Susan Engel’s villain character, sentenced by “justice machines” from outer space to perpetual imprisonment as a stone in the circle, will never be seen again. At the end of the adventure, Professor Amelia Rumsford jokes that she certainly won’t write up all the events of this incident in a new monograph about the stone circle. There are probably some police who will investigate the grisly murders of Mr. De Vries, his acolyte, and the two campers, who have some questions that only she can answer, though!

I really like the justice machines, which are called Megara and are made by a simple special effect keyed onto the studio picture. “The Stones of Blood” has a negative reputation in some quarters for taking this really unexpected turn from a unique and creepy seventies folklore horror story about stone circles into another tale of BBC sci-fi corridor sets and flashing computer desk props. I think the serial could have been better had it continued investigating creepy sacrifices and mysteries on the moor, but the sci-fi stuff is still very amusing as the Doctor defends himself against the law-obsessed Megara. If you’re going to do the outer space / hyperspace stuff, at least make it witty, I say. To be fair, though, the notion that the Doctor carries around one of those powdered barrister wigs in his coat pocket just in case he runs across any hanging judges kind of crosses the boundary from witty over to self-parody!

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