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Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (parts three and four)

I’ve mentioned before how I enjoy seeing how directors would return to some of the same actors. Well, the alien Eldrad first emerges as a crystalline female played by Judith Paris, but once the Doctor and Sarah take “her” back to her home planet of Kastria, she reconstitutes herself into her original male body, played by Stephen Thorne. Director Lennie Mayne had used Thorne three years previously, as Omega in “The Three Doctors.” Thorne has such an amazing voice, but the writers certainly gave him a lot of boring dialogue. It’s all ranting and raving and “I! SHALL! BE! KING!” and conquering the universe and so on.

So, going back to my own childhood and watching Doctor Who on Atlanta’s WGTV, I wasn’t able to catch every one of the compilation movies the first time around because of family trips or whatever. So I missed “The Hand of Fear” and was confused the following week because Sarah wasn’t in it. Sarah gets a remarkably unique departure. She’s the only companion in the whole of the original series who the Doctor actually leaves behind.

In the story, it’s allegedly because the Doctor’s been summoned back to his home planet, Gallifrey, and he can’t take her with him. This kind of rings hollow in the first place because nothing was stopping him from coming back to Earth to pick her up, and in the second place because later companions would get to travel to Gallifrey without incident. So even though Sarah got to return onscreen twice in the eighties, lots of people have pointed out that something wasn’t right about that. Happily, thirty years after “The Hand of Fear,” Sarah returned for a third time in the episode “School Reunion,” and this was addressed.

“The Hand of Fear” is definitely among that pile of Who adventures that start a whole lot stronger than they end. Honestly, part three’s cliffhanger has the Judith Paris version of Eldrad shot by a booby-trap missile, and part four could have just been Eldrad dying, the Doctor and Sarah exploring the dead planet by themselves, and finally going home, and I’d have been happier with it without all the ranting and threats. Sarah’s departure is the core of the story, and the male Eldrad just gets in the way of it. It’s a wonderfully sad ending, and apparently Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen wrote the scene themselves.

Unfortunately, our son didn’t enjoy this story very much at all, because he said he didn’t understand why, despite the script spelling it out very clearly, the Doctor took Eldrad back to Kastria. He has this odd habit of vaguely grumbling “I didn’t understand what that was about,” rather than asking specific questions. Once we understood the issue, his mother gave him a recap and he seemed a little more satisfied, and he was pleased when I told him that we would see Sarah Jane Smith again.

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Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (parts one and two)

There’s a lot to like about “The Hand of Fear.” Since Tom Baker’s Doctor didn’t spend as much time on contemporary Earth as Pertwee did, it’s kind of nice to see him interacting with everyday people in 1976. There’s a lot of ordinary, everyday locations in this one: a quarry, a hospital, and a power plant. The Doctor doesn’t drive around in his old yellow roadster; instead he’s a passenger in somebody’s old Datsun or something. There is a lot of good location filming in the first half of this story, and the sets and even the choice of furniture – dig those awful plastic chairs! – make this feel more “real” than “The Android Invasion” or “The Seeds of Doom,” which were both allegedly contemporary Earth stories, did.

“The Hand of Fear” is a four-parter that was first shown in 1976. It was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and was the last serial directed by Lennie Mayne, who sadly died in a boating accident a few months later. Mayne cast one of his reliable go-to actors, Rex Robinson, for the third time, and it also has a terrific guest appearance by Glyn Houston, perhaps best known as Bunter in three of the BBC’s Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations, as the director of the power plant.

Everybody comments on how unusual and how real it is that Houston’s character gets a moment to himself, completely away from the drama of the story, to phone home and tell his wife goodbye when he thinks the nuclear plant will have a meltdown and explode soon. I think this was a great decision for the scriptwriters because part two of this story is incredibly repetitive, and it breaks up all the running up and down lots of corridors. Television adventure drama rarely takes the time to give minor characters little human moments like this. There never is time, because everything that happens needs to either serve the plot or serve the stars. It may be less than a minute of the episode, but somehow it works just perfectly and really elevates the story.

I doubt our son noticed. He seemed to enjoy this one. It wasn’t very scary, although the memorable visual of the hand coming to life gave him the creeps, as it should. That one shot of the hand in the box at the cliffhanger is a remarkably good effect. The other bits where it’s crawling along the floor are the standard yellow-or-green-screen chromakey, but when the hand first moves, it’s so darn good you’re forced to question how they did it.

While I saw the runaround and repetition of part two a little wearying, he got into it. The director tried to make the story seem urgent and desperate, and it really worked with him. Part two ends with everything exploding as the disembodied hand gets carried into the reactor core and he was excited. He says that he’s kind of scared about what’s going to happen, “because this is a very creepy one,” but he didn’t hide behind the sofa this morning, either.

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part six)

Well, that was certainly flawed, but that’s a much better story than its poor reputation suggests. Anybody who thinks it’s actually worse than “Death to the Daleks” is as wrong as it’s possible to be. Our son was laughing and cheering all throughout this episode as the Ice Warriors are routed. He really enjoyed this one, and says that after being a little confused in the middle of the story, he loved the ending. Like “Dinosaurs,” it certainly should have been a four-parter. I’m predisposed to enjoy anything with Ice Warriors, and from a structural standpoint, the story’s biggest problem is treading water until they show up. It does begin and end well.

Another problem is a cosmetic one. Marie mentioned how she was constantly distracted by the weird paint job on Commander Azaxyr’s helmet, and she’s right. It’s meant to suggest the mottled skin of his jaw, but she’s right: it looks like they had a light green plastic helmet and not enough dark green paint to give it a solid coat. Disbelief is never suspended long enough to stop thinking that.

And Peladon itself remains one of the least convincing alien environments in the history of the series. After ten episodes, we never saw any of the court officials that are mentioned, never visited a banquet hall, receiving room, private royal chambers, museums, public hall of worship, or saw any historical artifacts or paintings on the walls, or anything that says “this belongs to the planet” other than the small throne room, a private shrine, and a corridor or two. Most bafflingly, we never see an actual entrance to the citadel that the people of Peladon would actually use under regular conditions. The only way anybody moves from one environment – the castle – to the second one – the tunnels and mines – is through a secret entrance which, in the first story, the king didn’t believe existed.

Bizarrely, the king didn’t know anything about the tunnels, but in this one, we learn there’s a whacking huge hole in the back of the throne room that connects with them! King Peladon never noticed a draft?

Somehow, though, Peladon caught fans’ imagination in a crazy way. I swear, once upon a time, there must have been more fanfic set on Peladon than any other planet in the show. I should know; I wrote one of them myself. I was fourteen or fifteen, it was called “The Attack on Peladon,” and it had the fourth Doctor and Leela in it. I struggled to have the Doctor explain his different face to Alpha Centauri, as did writer Gary Russell, whose professionally-published novel Legacy for Virgin Books’ New Adventures line covered the same Aggedor-Centauri-Ice Warriors footsteps as a hundred amateur stories.

Peladon was the last contribution to the series for writer Brian Hayles, who moved on to other screenwriting jobs after this adventure. One of his best known films is Warlords of Atlantis, which we plan to watch in 2018. And it’s also, strangely, the final appearance of the Ice Warriors for an extremely long time. They won’t trouble the next seven Doctors! They appeared in four serials over seven seasons. That’s tied with the Daleks for second place behind the Master. That’s partially the list-making kid in me coming out, but I mention it to illustrate how odd it was that they vanished from the show, even understanding that the program’s next two producers would turn out to be far less interested in revisiting old enemies than other people in that job. They went from reliably showing up every couple of years to almost totally forgotten.

We were spared a return visit in 1986. “The Trial of a Time Lord” replaced six stories that were in various stages of pre-production. One of these was a misbegotten mess called “Mission to Magnus,” and the Ice Warriors were one of at least three villains in it. The writer novelized his script for Target Books’ The Missing Episodes line in 1990. I only read it once, but wanted to throw it across the room. Another return visit, “Thin Ice,” was in the planning stages when Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989. The Warriors finally returned in 2013’s “Cold War,” and I enjoyed the heck out of that one. They deserved better than a thirty-nine year wait. We had comics and novels to tide us over, and Big Finish have made radio plays of those two cancelled stories along with a half-dozen or more other Ice Warrior adventures, but these guys should have been on TV.

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part five)

Television: they used to do things a little differently. The BBC announced Jon Pertwee’s departure the second week of February 1974, about when part five of this story was in production, the day that part five of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” was shown. One week later, 40 year-old Tom Baker was announced as the new Doctor. He’d be in the studio taping his regeneration scene on April 2, and began rehearsals for his debut adventure about a week later. Audiences got their first glimpse of the new Doctor’s face in the closing seconds of Pertwee’s final episode, shown on June 8. Baker’s first story would be held over to the next season. February announcement – June regeneration – December debut.

Fast forward forty-three years. Peter Capaldi announced he was leaving the show on January 30th of this year. Jodie Whittaker was revealed as the next Doctor more than five months later, on July 16. She filmed her half of the regeneration scene three days after that. The episode was shown on December 25th, and we’re not sure when series eleven will start, although there’s talk it will be September of next year. I will miss Capaldi and I am looking forward to Whittaker, but this twenty month process is for the birds.

I hope Whittaker plays the Doctor for a really long time – after all these “three series and a special” Doctors, I want her to beat Tom’s record – but whenever it’s time for the Fourteenth Doctor, whoever’s producing the show and managing the brand and acquiring corporate synergy for BBC/ESPN/Comcast/Warner Brothers/AT&T LLC (a wholly-owned subsidiary of GodCorp/Disney Inc. under license from NetAmazonFlix) should look back at the comparatively simple process of 1974 and conclude “That’s the right way.”

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part four)

Most film and TV people have to fake it a little, and make a handful of costumes represent dozens of characters. The problem here is that the BBC had three and a half Ice Warrior costumes. You see that fellow on the right? He’s the Bubblehead Warrior. That head had been sitting in storage since the Ice Warriors’ first appearance seven years previously. Now, you can’t tell the other three actors’ costumes apart, so any of those guys will do for any closeups, but the director keeps bringing the Bubblehead in for closeups in these last three parts. I don’t understand why Lennie Mayne did this. Don’t draw attention to the one that is a) the most distinctive and b) the most obviously crap. That seems like a simple enough plan!

When I read Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time, I had a good belly laugh over an observation. Commander Azaxyr is stomping around in a helmet with only his square jaw visible, giving lines like “You forget, Doctor, I am your judge,” and “Must I remind you, Ambassador, here on Peladon, I am the law!” He’s like a proto-Judge Dredd! That’s exactly what I thought when I first saw this story on WGTV in 1986 or so, and I dashed off some fan art and mailed it to 2000 AD. I drew the commander, gave him a judge’s badge, and a word balloon that read “Here on Peladon-City One, I am the law!”

Last I checked, I was in the top five for having the most letters printed in 2000 AD, but I don’t have any art credits on the input page. I’m sure the Tharg of the time – probably Steve MacManus? – turned it down because it was a reference to a very obscure character who had been on TV for three weeks some twelve years previously and never repeated in Britain, and not because my art completely stinks. That’s the reason, right, Green Bonce?

This episode ends with the umpteenth swordfight we’ve watched recently. This time, Ralph Watson matches blades with Jon Pertwee, and, painfully obviously, Pertwee’s double Terry Walsh. It’s a good fight, but I felt the need to assure our son that in the real world, people just don’t get into swordfights anywhere near as often as they do on television. My wife added that she took fencing in college and so she’s had a few matches herself. I don’t think that’s quite the same, but maybe we should buy a nice blade for a wall decoration, just in case she needs to take it down and defend our home against fanatic miners, Hellfire Clubbers, or renegade Time Lords.

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (parts two and three)

I’ve got a theory about why “The Monster of Peladon” isn’t very highly regarded. Most of the six-part Pertwee stories are too long, as I keep saying. But most of them start strong and peter out as they go, unable to keep the momentum and padding parts four and five. But “Monster” has the problem of episodes two and three being the completely unnecessary ones.

The whole story is built up to the surprise reveal of the Ice Warriors at the end of the third part, so we’re going to get three episodes of Alan Bennion being entertaining – at least I remember him being entertaining – as Commander Azaxyr when we resume this story in a couple of days. But we could have been introduced to the refinery and Alpha Centauri phoning home for Federation troops in part one and shoved out alllllll this padding and had one lean, mean, awesome first episode instead.

As for the content of that padding, “Curse” had Geoffrey Toone as a believable obstacle to the protagonists, the high priest Hepesh. His replacement, Ortron, just seems to be an antagonist for no reason beyond putting audience sympathy with the miners. And because he has to be evil and obstinate for fully half the story and repeatedly block the Doctor, who spends most of episode three in Ortron’s dungeon, there’s absolutely no reason not to sympathize with the miners. The queen is so weak that she needs Sarah Jane to explain women’s lib to her – ah, 1974, never change – and as the plot reveals that the miners have moved some stolen Federation technology into position and have the power to destroy the Peladonian citadel, I’m not sure why we shouldn’t all be cheering them on.

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part one)

Weird aliens in the throne room? We must be back on Peladon! That’s Vega Nexos in the picture above, a mining engineer from a race of satyrs. Fifty years after the first Peladon adventure, Vega Nexos is working on Peladon with our old pal Alpha Centauri and an Earthman named Eckersley, played by Donald Gee. Vega Nexos is only in three scenes and gets killed before the seven minute mark of episode one, but the character was oddly included on some very popular Doctor Who merchandising in the 1970s, leading thousands of British kids to scratch their heads and wonder what the heck story this guy was in.

“The Monster of Peladon” is nobody’s favorite Pertwee adventure, but it starts well enough. Not content with reassembling costumes and sets from the original Peladon story, this one also brings back writer Brian Hayles and director Lennie Mayne. Mayne cast Rex Robinson, whom he’d used before and would use again in Who, in the role of the leader of the miners, and that’s where this episode’s conflict lies. Interestingly, the miners on Peladon are either a separate race or a separate caste, and are forbidden to enter that giant citadel on the mountain despite doing all the Federation’s dirty work.

So when a “spirit of Aggedor” starts materializing and murdering miners, there’s a revolution brewing. Last time out, the high priest was in league with the alien Arcturus. This time out, there’s a high priest who, just like his predecessor, doesn’t trust anybody and worships old gods, and a monarch, the daughter of the king we met last time, who has faith in the future. This is good, but it could have been better, or at least felt a great deal less like a retread, had their roles been reversed.

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part four)

Our son clarified that while he was no longer excited about this story after the betrayal of the bad fight with the ugly pig-faced man, he is “attached” to Doctor Who and wants to see what will happen next. Fortunately, the mad Omega banishes the pig-faced man almost instantly as this episode opens, and he enjoyed this part much, much more.

Honestly, we all grade “The Three Doctors” on a curve because we love the idea of multi-Doctor adventures and we love Patrick Troughton. This isn’t as good as it could be. My biggest aggravation is actor Stephen Thorne’s one-note bellowing, but in his defense, he lets out a seriously painful and agonized howl when he realizes that his body has been completely disintegrated, and that’s my second biggest aggravation: it’s the emotional climax of the story and it takes place six minutes into part four.

The director seems to think the climax is all the guest stars walking up a fairground haunted house’s staircase into a column of smoke one at an endless and tedious time and saying their goodbyes to the Doctors, and it assuredly isn’t. This story badly needed to have one more draft: have the Doctors realize what is wrong without telling Omega, escape for a bit, get everybody home through the smoke column, and then explain to Omega that his body has been destroyed, let the villain give out that wretched and painful howl, and then annihilate the anti-matter universe. I try not to Monday-morning-quarterback old TV too much, but I insist that would have worked better.

So it’s entertaining if not necessarily all that good, and I enjoyed letting our son know that Doctors will occasionally meet each other in the future, and never really get along with each other. It’ll be a couple of years before he sees his next teamup, though!

We’ll be taking a short break from Doctor Who, but we’ll resume our look at the tenth season in early November. Stay tuned!

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