Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (parts three and four)

The other thing I really don’t like about “Warriors’ Gate” is Romana’s departure. It’s not as bad as Leela’s was, but it’s far too sudden and it isn’t given any sense of occasion.

Imagine this story with the roles reversed. If Romana had spent part three behind the mirror, then we’d see a reason for her empathy with the Tharils and her decision wouldn’t seem like it came from nowhere. I think that could have made a good serial much stronger.

But this is otherwise a solid story, and I like the way it assumes that the viewers are intelligent enough to figure out that time can flow in different directions on the other side of the gateway’s mirror. I don’t really have a lot of time to talk about it tonight, but our son also enjoyed it, and thought it was compelling and weird. It probably needed more of those Gundan robots, though. He really liked those things.

He’s also got his fingers crossed that there will be a K9 Mark Three. He’ll find out pretty soon.

Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (parts one and two)

It’s kind of the nature of characters in adventure shows to do dumb things. Admittedly, the audience is given a lot more clues than Romana could know that the dudes who show up outside the TARDIS – one of them played by the great Kenneth Cope – are some of the cruelest, most desperate, and most hateful villains the show’s given us for some time: slave traders. But Romana was given enough of a warning when a strange lion-man, wearing shackles!, actually enters the TARDIS and warns them about the people who are chasing him. I guess she figures that she can be smug and superior and push these guys around, and she’s completely out of her depth, kidnapped, and nearly killed by them.

This has always weighed heavily on this story for me. “Warriors’ Gate” is the first Doctor Who serial written by Stephen Gallagher, who would later write some successful science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories. It’s an extremely interesting and complex story with some really interesting visuals – particularly in the next two parts – but Romana’s idiotic decision to put herself in danger has always aggravated me. There should have been another way to get her involved in the narrative than that.

I thought that our son would be a little more baffled than he was, but really, the first two parts are actually pretty straightforward. It’s when we get to the other side of the Gateway that the narrative gets a little less direct. He really enjoyed the Gundan robots, creaky, decaying skeletal things in armor with axes that have been left to be covered by cobwebs and dust. Like I say, it certainly is a story with great visuals, and part two ends with a very effective hand-held camera shot from the POV of one of the lion-man slaves, stalking his way through the cargo ship toward the helpless Romana, which he said was incredibly scary.

Doctor Who: State of Decay (parts three and four)

It’s a “be quiet and don’t wake up the monsters” cliffhanger at the end of part three, meaning, of course, that Romana isn’t quiet enough and she wakes up the monsters. And it gave our son one of the biggest frights he’s ever had. He was under his blanket like a shot and when the end credits started, he bolted off the sofa and ran for the front door. He’s never hid all that way before. He didn’t come back to the den until he could hear that the third vampire had come into the “inner sanctum” and told the other two to knock it off, because he has important plans for them.

This is a terrific story. There’s a great bit where K9 warns the Doctor that using the “indigenous dissident population” to start his riot doesn’t have a high probability of success, which means that K9 hasn’t been watching the same show the rest of us have. Another great bit has Emrys James, who, to be fair, is indulging in a little overacting, as people playing vampires often do, telling one of his guards that dying is what guards are for.

For his final verdict, our son gave it a thumbs-sideways. He explained that it was totally awesome, but it was also “totally too scary!” This may be the last time he says that for a while. I honestly don’t think Doctor Who was this deliberately scary again for a long time. I’m sure something will give him an unexpected shock or two, but eighties Who rarely went in for real horror. I think he’ll be eight when we get to “The Curse of Fenric,” which is the story I’m thinking of, but if anything else sends him behind the sofa – or to the front door – I’ll be sure to write about it!

Doctor Who: State of Decay (parts one and two)

I’d like to think that I was too old to be frightened by Doctor Who when I first started watching it around age 13, but I’ll admit that Emrys James’s portrayal of this vampiric villain called Aukon might have come closer than anything else. This is a stunningly effective cliffhanger at the end of part two, where our heroes have deduced that their opponents are vampires and that there’s some gigantic creature living underneath the gothic tower of the Three Who Rule. Then Aukon shows up behind them and offers them greetings, that they’re in his domain now.

The whole production is much, much creepier and more frightening than Doctor Who had been in many years, and our son definitely felt it. He told us this one is so scary, and as our heroes discovered blood-filled feeding tubes and quietly, urgently, discuss what could be happening, he huddled behind his security blanket. Good thing Mommy had some brownies ready for dessert tonight!

“State of Decay” was the second story to be produced in season eighteen, and because the producer and script editor had to hit the ground running and needed scripts fast, they phoned up writer Terrance Dicks. He had submitted a story three years previously which had been cancelled at the last minute by some high muckity-muck at the BBC (“Horror of Fang Rock” was an eleventh-hour substitution), and they asked whether he’d like to do a quick rewrite of it – and therefore get paid for the same story twice.

Somehow in all the turmoil, and with another new-to-the-series director, Peter Moffatt stepping in, nobody actually told Tom Baker and Lalla Ward that they were getting a new co-star. I like the way that they chose to introduce Matthew Waterhouse as Adric. We didn’t actually see him stow away in the previous story, and so when he turns up in the TARDIS after the Doctor and Romana have left to go explore the planet, there’s a surprising “What is he doing here?” moment. Apparently, that’s what Baker and Ward wanted to know as well.

One note on casting: an actor named Clinton Greyn plays the role of the head villager. He’s a tall guy, and about twelve years previously, he had starred as the lead in the obscure, oddball series Virgin of the Secret Service. (John of the Cult TV Blog wrote about this weird show last month and you should check it out.) I always like noting how directors will come back to some of the same actors, and so it doesn’t surprise me to note that Peter Moffatt gave Greyn a call five years later when he was booked to do a serial in season twenty-two.

I thought about that tonight as I noted Greyn towering over Matthew Waterhouse. Moffatt cast Greyn as a Sontaran. I understand loyalty to actors who can get the job done, but clearly nobody told Moffatt that Sontarans are supposed to be short…

Doctor Who: Full Circle (parts three and four)

This story is even better than I remembered it. There are unethical scientists and forbidden knowledge, and, in a very nice change, no villain at all. It’s just ordinary and badly flawed people in a bad situation without the resources or imagination to change it. “Full Circle” drops in some surprises and curve balls, and while some of these are telegraphed, the actors are so good that they don’t give any tells. I like how George Baker just casually mentions that it will take generations to get their ship up and moving again, as though of course the wise, travelling Doctor knows all about how people just naturally spend a century or more getting spacecraft ready. Our son really enjoyed it, as well. This has all the ingredients for a perfect story for under-tens, with enough for grown-ups to appreciate, too.

A few words about the music and opening credits: conventional wisdom has always grumbled that the neon tube logo, the starfield credits, and the 1980 arrangement of the theme tune are all combine to make the program’s weakest and least imaginative titles. I’ve always agreed. It’s a science fiction show, so “stars” is the theme, yeah? But darned if our kid doesn’t completely love them and has started dancing – at least, he claims it’s dancing – to the music. The incidental music within the show’s a different matter. Most of it is composed by Paddy Kingsland or Peter Howell at this stage and I have always really enjoyed it. Kingsland will end up letting me down badly with one score in a couple of years, but I really like how he introduces recurring motifs and even incorporates the Who theme into the background music in a couple of places. Everybody loves the musician Dudley Simpson for all the great work that he did in the seventies, but at least so far, it really seems like John Nathan-Turner was right to move on. The music is fresh and new, and especially with the much more energetic direction by the newcomers, the show is looking and feeling like it has more life in it than it had over the previous few years.

Doctor Who: Full Circle (parts one and two)

I really enjoy it when our son reacts with such enthusiasm over Doctor Who‘s cliffhangers. Part one of “Full Circle” ends with the beasts-of-the-month, some Black Lagoon creatures called Marshmen, waking up and rising out of a mist-covered lake. Our son spent the recap behind the sofa. Then the second episode ends with some whacking huge spiders – some hilariously unconvincing tourist trap haunted house spiders with light bulb eyes and giant teeth, but spiders nonetheless – hatching from a pile of what everybody thought were ordinary watermelons that the locals call riverfruit. The kid was shocked. “That nutritious fruit is eggs for spiders!”

“Full Circle” is an entertaining adventure that’s aged extremely well. It was the first professional story by a young writer named Andrew Smith, and it’s the first Who serial to be directed by Peter Grimwade, who is by leagues the most interesting and influential director of the early eighties. It also features the first appearance of Adric, a new character who seems to be about fourteen years old, played by nineteen year-old Matthew Waterhouse. The casting of actors who are unmistakably older than their young characters is going to be a hallmark of eighties Who, unfortunately.

As for the older actors, there’s George Baker as a father torn between devotion and his new duties. We’ve seen Baker as the Beefeater in the first episode of The Goodies. He may have been best known at the time for his regular role in the BBC’s celebrated I, Claudius, though he was also the screen’s first Inspector Alleyn, in a series of Ngaio Marsh adaptations made for New Zealand television. Later, he’d play Wexford in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries for years. Plus there’s James “No, what a stooopid fool YOU ARE” Bree as the leader of this strange community.

Our son has definitely twigged that something weird is going on in this community. Every fifty or so years, a large settlement around a non-functioning “Starliner” retreats inside and seals the ship because the air outside is said to become toxic during “Mistfall.” The citizens make repairs and talk about a great embarkation to return them to their ancestors’ home planet. But the Doctor and K9 know the air is perfectly breathable, and after he breaks into the Starliner, with a young, grunting Marshman scurrying behind him, he starts people questioning why the society’s rulers are so keen to keep everybody locked indoors for years.

I think the combination of scary monsters, scary spiders, and lying bureaucrats has him especially interested to see what will happen next. I asked whether this story is better than “Meglos,” and he happily agreed. There’s certainly a lot to like here.

Doctor Who: Meglos (parts three and four)

Our son came around and started enjoying this story as it went on. There’s a gunfight in episode three, and then the inevitable bit where Tom Baker gets to play both the Doctor and Meglos and the two have the contractually-obligated confrontation that all adventure television doubles stories need to have. Our son did, however, suffer the huge cheat of the villain’s base not actually exploding. The visual effects team did that rotten cheat that they sometimes do of turning up the lights and the contrast really fast so it simulates an explosion without actually blowing the model to pieces.

I think that “Meglos” would be the last time that Doctor Who would be quite this by-the-numbers for a little while. I think that the only real spark that the story has at all comes when Romana gets captured by the mercenaries and leads them around in circles, supposedly back to her ship as she’s been ordered. She feigns confusion caused by the planet’s anti-clockwise rotation and seems to be enjoying herself as she looks for an opportunity to turn the tables on the villains. Bill Fraser is also pretty amusing as the bad-tempered leader of the mercenaries, and these are high points in a story that doesn’t want to push any envelopes.

Doctor Who: Meglos (parts one and two)

Our son has really enjoyed so many of the most recent Doctor Who stories that we’ve watched, so it was probably inevitable that we’d hit a turkey eventually. It’s one that lots of people agree is a turkey, so he’s in good company. The problem is that the planet of the story has a gigantic underground city powered by a huge artifact that nobody understands. The religious nutballs of the city believe it’s a gift from God and the eyes of disbelievers cannot be allowed to see it, and the scientists of the city think this is ridiculous and, since its power is fluctuating wildly after decades of steady flow, could we please just take some measurements of the thing before it spirals out of control and kills everyone?

So the nutballs argue with the sensible people, and the nutballs win every argument because they refuse to compromise an inch. The planet is ruled by a Mr. Make Everybody Happy type played by Edward Underdown, instead of by a Mr. Shut the Hell Up and Let Some People in There Who Know What They’re Doing type, which is what this planet badly needs. And so our son rolled his eyes at this shenanigans, because while he may not be able to spot an evil supercomputer until it’s practically on top of him (like last night), he knows that the nutballs are not going to win this argument.

I had been saying that the new production team for Doctor Who needed new blood. “Meglos” was the third story produced in season eighteen. The second story produced would be shown fourth, and it’s the only other one for the next four years to be written by a screenwriter from the show’s past. So “Meglos” is the first production with a new-to-the-show director and writers. The director is Terence Dudley, who had worked with the producer on the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, and the writers, John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, were discovered by the new script editor.

Unfortunately, the story they concocted is a very predictable bore. There’s a cactus-alien called Meglos who wants the artifact, and, because the Doctor is acting insanely out of character and sends a passing hello from space to his old friend Edward Underdown and gets invited to come help them with their technology issues, Meglos traps the Doctor, impersonates him, and goes to steal the artifact. It takes forty-some minutes to get to a point in the plot that probably could be done in under ten. Our son summed it up by saying “There’s just not a lot of action in this one, and I don’t like anybody in the city.”

Anyway, for all the new blood behind the scenes, this story’s full of veteran actors. Apart from Edward Underdown, the cast also includes Jacqueline Hill as the leader of the nutballs. She had played one of the show’s original companion characters, Barbara Wright, from 1963-65. And there’s comedy star Bill Fraser as one of Meglos’s mercenaries. Fraser was the best thing about the Avengers episode “Small Game for Big Hunters,” which I don’t enjoy very much. There are some forgettable younger players in the story, but it’s really dominated by these three older actors, and with the Doctor and Romana trapped in space for most of the show’s first half, it all adds up to a story that younger viewers just can’t appreciate. But it’s all so predictable and dull that older viewers can’t really appreciate it either.

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.

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!