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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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Doctor Who: Shada (parts two through six)

My eyes are still popping out of my head. We picked up the story of “Shada” from where we left off last night, with the original cliffhanger to part one, and enjoyed this presentation so much more. I’ve always liked “Shada” and have watched the 1992 version several times. My only complaint about this edition is that it’s only available as a single feature that lasts two hours and eighteen minutes. I would have preferred they kept the original episodic structure.

All of the original “Shada” recording sessions and film material were retained, so the team who worked on this could go right back to scratch and restore everything as new. The result is absolutely beautiful. Seventies Doctor Who has never looked as good as this. The lengthy animated sections are rudimentary, but what really impressed me was the new model work. They didn’t have the budget in 1992 for the comparatively lavish space station Think Tank that’s seen here.

And yes, it’s a very good story. Not “City of Death” good, true, but had this been completed in 1979, everybody would have said it was the second best production of this troubled season. The Doctor’s initial confrontation with Skagra has always tickled me, and our son completely loved the bicycle chase, all the K9 action, and the mind-control fight of the climax. He thought it was “super exciting” and says that the monstrous Krargs were “awesome.” Then again, we’re clearly not doing our job as residents of Tennessee. During the bike chase, the Doctor races past a vocal group on a street corner singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Our son didn’t recognize the song! Sorry, Glenn Miller. I thought it was ubiquitous…

The restored and completed “Shada” will be released in North America in November. That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll start looking at season eighteen in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Shada (part one)

There may be one or six readers who visit us here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time who don’t know about “Shada.” For them, briefly, the situation is that Douglas Adams wrote a six-part serial to wrap up his year as script editor for Doctor Who. Actors Denis Carey, Victoria Burgoyne, and Christopher Neame, among others, joined the cast and director Pennant Roberts in Cambridge in October 1979 for location filming. Then they returned to London for what should have been three studio recording sessions. They finished the first, rehearsed the second, and then a years-long dispute between the BBC and one of the technician unions blew up.

The cast were locked out of the studio, it didn’t get resolved in time for other productions on the calendar, the actors’ time-sensitive contracts expired, and the show was formally axed shortly afterward. Adams and the program’s producer, Graham Williams, got to end their time on Who with a story that was cancelled. Some of the film footage was used as “new” material four years later in “The Five Doctors,” and even more of the script was used as “new” material in Adams’ 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. He also used with the climax of “City of Death,” which I always thought was a bit cheeky of him.

In 1992, BBC Video released a “best that could be done” version of “Shada,” with a small budget for some visual effects and editing. It was overseen by the show’s last producer, John Nathan-Turner, and featured music by Keff McCulloch, who evidently didn’t actually watch the visuals that he was scoring, along with an introduction and linking narration by Tom Baker, kind of sort of in character but also wearing a pretty nice suit. This version later made its way to DVD in a three-disc set with a boatload of extras and the fab, feature-length documentary More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS. Tonight, we sat down to enjoy the first twenty-ish minutes of this story in its 1992 incarnation.

And enjoy’s the right word. For ages, with only a fan-assembled compilation of the footage making the bootleg rounds to view, one school of thought in the eighties said that “Shada” was a lost classic, that it was the epic we should have got. Other, much grouchier people pointed out that the two previous “epic” six-part serials that Graham Williams had produced were “The Invasion of Time” and “The Armageddon Factor,” neither of which blew anybody’s mind, and really, why should anybody expect this would have been all that different from “The Horns of Nimon,” which should have been the story that led into “Shada,” and not the season finale it became.

Simple. “City of Death” was, after all, very, very different from “The Horns of Nimon.”

I think that “Shada” is completely wonderful. It’s by leagues the best evidence we’ve got that Pennant Roberts had such a good reputation as a director, because the location work in Cambridge is just fantastic, and the scenes set in Professor Chronotis’s oddball shambles of a room in Cambridge’s St. Cedd’s College are delightful. Not very much happens in part one, but it’s very witty and very fun to watch, and I love Christopher Neame stomping around Cambridge in his sci-fi villain costume and not attracting anybody’s attention. The bit about the inhuman babbling of undergraduates always slays me, and there’s better still to come.

At least I think there is. I haven’t actually seen what comes next. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow morning.

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Doctor Who: The Horns of Nimon (parts three and four)

I owe “Death to the Daleks” an apology. This one’s worse.

The kid really enjoyed it, though. He got a little frustrated during episode three, because he couldn’t understand what the Nimon was planning. I think it’s more that he thought the show had explained all the details and he missed them. Reassured that none of us knew what the silly minotaur-dude was planning, he settled back in and had a ball. He thought it was very exciting and loved the gunfights in episode four. Of course, it ends with a big explosion, and those are always satisfying for him. And there, I think, is where I will leave it. I’ll let you know in 2038 whether it’s improved any.

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Doctor Who: The Horns of Nimon (parts one and two)

Hoo, boy. “The Horns of Nimon” really is a mess. The story goes that with Douglas Adams working hard on writing the final six episodes of the season himself, he turned to his predecessor as script editor, Anthony Read, to give him four workable episodes which wouldn’t require very much of his attention. Apparently, Adams had less involvement with “Nimon” than any of the other serials that year, although I’ve always thought that the character of the co-pilot, with his catchphrase “Weakling scum!”, is a close cousin of that Vogon guard in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide who enjoys shouting “Resistance is useless!”

The co-pilot also gets to shout “Don’t play the fool with me!” That’s the second time in two stories. Somebody should really pay attention to letting the bad guys speak in those silly cliches.

Honestly, it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as either its reputation or as bad as I remember it. (Note: I’m wrong.) The stars are having fun, and so’s the famous actor playing the main villain, Graham Crowden. As with the other “middle” shows of this season, they’re having fun at the expense of the drama, but it’s the sort of fun that kids eat up. This one has a monster so ridiculous that it didn’t give Mr. Timid here even a hint of a fright. He thinks all these villains are being “too mean,” but he says it’s entertaining.

Plus, Lalla Ward just plain looks amazing in that fox hunt outfit. I know you can barely notice her in that picture above, what with that extra behind her stealing the frame by looking hypnotized, but it really is a terrific costume.

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Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts three and four)

It’s not often that the climax of a Doctor Who undermines everything to quite the degree this one does. On the one hand, it’s kind of nice to have a Bob Baker script that doesn’t fall apart after episode one. This one waits until the fourth. But even before we get there, we have to contend with the Mandrels, who don’t rank on anybody’s list of favorite Who beasts. Some newspaper critic back in ’79 called them refugees from The Muppet Show, and he’s right. Tom Baker could have played this scene with Sweetums and Doglion, plus a laugh track, and it wouldn’t have looked any sillier.

Then there’s one of Tom’s most ill-advised ad-libs. You get used to Tom overacting and doing whatever he wants for a laugh in this period of the show, because it usually works at least a little. And so we get to the infamous incident where, offscreen, he’s being attacked by a Mandrel and bellows “My fingers, my arms… my everything!” and emerges with his clothes in tatters. It did get a big smile from our seven year-old son, who enjoyed the mayhem, but it completely undermined the simple moment just ninety-some seconds later when he just quietly says “Go away” to the villain. You can’t play the same page as both a pantomime and as a serious drama. The bigger will always overpower the smaller, which helps to explain why this story is so poorly regarded.

The villain doesn’t help matters much. I’m not sure whether it’s Lewis Fiander’s silly attempt at a German accent or his silly Roger McGuinn granny glasses that undermines the character more.

I think you can see a little more of Douglas Adams in this serial than in the previous one. The concept of two spaceships warping into each other and occupying the same space is a pleasantly high-SF idea, and the two customs officers who start complicating the story at the end of part two are bureaucracy-obsessed cousins of Shooty and Bang-Bang from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. (They’re also the spiritual ancestors of the Caretakers in the 1987 serial “Paradise Towers,” I think.)

But credit where it’s due: this was Bob Baker’s last contribution to Doctor Who after writing or co-writing eight serials over ten seasons. Among other credits after this, he co-created Into the Labyrinth for HTV and wrote a few episodes of the long-running cop show Bergerac before finding his biggest success as writer for the Wallace & Gromit films.

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Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts one and two)

Sometime in the second half of 1984, I convinced my parents to drop my younger brother and me in downtown Atlanta for my first con, one of those Creation shows that were common at the time. We spent a few hours drooling over comic books that we couldn’t afford and several more hours in one of the video rooms. They showed “Nightmare of Eden” to a packed house. It had aired on WGTV locally a few months previously, so I’d seen it before. It was my first Doctor Who repeat. And the audience loved it. They treated the monsters seriously and they laughed at the Doctor’s jokes. When David Daker’s character tells the Doctor that the company that the Doctor claims to represent went bankrupt twenty years ago, the Doctor instantly says “Well, I wondered why I hadn’t been paid,” and the room just exploded with laughter.

Our son also really likes it, apart from the scary monsters, which are only briefly glimpsed in the first two episodes. There’s a lot to like so far. The down sides are pretty minor. I think the worst offense is that, not content with letting a “Have a care, Doctor!” slip through in the last story, our beloved script editor allowed a “Don’t play the fool with me” this time, but we’ll live.

Behind the scenes, “Nightmare of Eden” was written by Bob Baker. It’s his only solo Who script after co-writing eight serials with Dave Martin. It was partially directed by Alan Bromly, an older BBC veteran who was approaching the end of a long career, but he actually quit midway through one of the recording sessions and the producer, Graham Williams, had to actually step in and finish it himself, probably growling that what he really wanted to do three years previously was produce a nice, safe cop show without one crisis after another like he was forced to manage on Doctor Who. Apparently he was already thinking of quitting, and this troubled production was the final straw. More on those troubles next time.

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