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Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (parts one and two)

1977’s “Image of the Fendahl” was the last Who TV story written by Chris Boucher, and the last one script-edited by Robert Holmes, although happily, we still have a few more stories from his typewriter to come. It seems to be set a short time after “The Invisible Enemy,” since the Doctor’s had cause to dismantle K9 for repairs, and Leela has found a new, white outfit somewhere. I wonder whether people from her tribe sew their own garments. Maybe the Doctor bought her a few yards of leather, or imitation leather, somewhere.

This is a good, creepy story, although it’s one I’ve always had trouble embracing because all of the guest actors, including Dennis Lill and Wanda Ventham, manage to seem a lot more like actors in a TV studio than scientists in an old priory. The reason for their research is all mcguffins, the point is to get everybody in one place for something weird and creepy that deliberately evokes Quatermass and the Pit as much as possible. There are mysterious deaths, twelve million year-old human skulls with pentacles in them, and a local grandmother who practices “the old ways.” We catch a glimpse of eerie slug-like things that the Doctor calls embryos, and it’s going to build to something very memorable the next time we sit down to watch TV…

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Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy (parts three and four)

Our son liked the story’s final line – Frederick Jaeger hoping that K9 is “TARDIS trained” – so much that it overshadowed the big explosion. For me, Jaeger and K9 and Louise Jameson are pretty much the only things about this one worth watching. It’s worse than I remembered it, ponderous and boring, with some of the most poorly staged gunfights in the whole series. The next one’s better.

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Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy (parts one and two)

When I first watched Doctor Who in 1984, I missed several of the stories in season fifteen because of family travel or whatever. I missed the first three stories – “Fang Rock,” this one, and “Image of the Fendahl” – and the last one of the season. So K9 was a big surprise to me, and because when you’re a twelve year-old boy, the desire not to have other people mock your childish interests is like a survival code, it wasn’t a nice one. I couldn’t believe this show suddenly had a cute robot. He predates R2-D2, incidentally. This story was taped a month before the American premiere of Star Wars.

Seven is so much nicer an age than twelve. Our son was instantly charmed by K9. He got up and walked to the television, wide-eyed, and pointed at K9 just in case we missed it. “Look! It’s a robot dog!” He’s going to be so happy when K9 comes along at the end of this story.

I asked whether K9 is the best thing about this serial and Marie instantly interrupted “Yes!” I did warn her that this story is what happens when Dr. Science is not paying any attention at all to the script. I’ve never really cared for it either, but I’d forgotten just how good part one is. There’s a real sense of menace and mystery about the strange space infection, and I really like the design of the Titan base. The visual effects range from passable to regrettable as always, but all the other elements of this adventure – K9, the clones, the shrinking, the journey into the Doctor’s brain, that shrimp costume – are so much more memorable, mostly for all the wrong reasons, than the fabulous first episode. The dropoff is unbelievably steep.

Anyway, so this story was written by veterans Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and the memorable guest stars include Frederick Jaeger, as K9’s master Professor Marius, and Michael Sheard, as one of the infected bunch from the Titan base. This was a very rushed production and it badly, badly needed another draft of the script, preferably one where the clones wear basic orange jumpsuits and maybe some scuba gear! Episode one was far better than I remembered it, and episode two was about as lousy. But our son thought episode one was creepy and scary, and episode two has K9 in it, and would not agree.

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Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts three and four)

It’s always nice when our son is happy and excited about what we’re watching. He didn’t want breakfast this morning, he wanted to watch Doctor Who. Those last five Twilight Zone stories we watched were really sapping his enthusiasm!

He was thrilled and enjoyed this one, and I agree. It’s really entertaining, and amazingly, only the Doctor and Leela survive the incident. Even more amazingly, he doesn’t seem to notice, and certainly doesn’t say anything about it. The Doctor is shown as brooding and frightened for much of the story, until he figures out that their enemy is an alien blob called a Rutan, at which point he becomes the more relaxed and confident hero that we know.

But he never returns to brood over the fact that he failed to save any of the humans in the lighthouse, and left behind what must have been one of England’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Think about it: at some point, the authorities would find the bodies of these eight people, one of them graphically disemboweled by the Rutan to understand how Earthling anatomy works. One is a peer called Lord Palmerdale and another is a highly respectable retired colonel, and the killer left a fortune in diamonds behind, before fleeing. The History Channels and the In Search Ofs of the Who world probably feature recreations of “The Fang Rock Lighthouse Murders” as often as stories about Jack the Ripper, the lost colony at Roanoke, and the Oak Island Money Pit.

The Rutans, incidentally, are kind of the big Doctor Who monster that wasn’t. They were first mentioned in 1973’s “The Time Warrior” as the primary enemies of the Sontarans, but as for television Who, they’re an offscreen enemy, existing only to motivate the Sontarans into moving into this situation or that to gain a strategic advantage over them. It’s always “What are you Sontarans doing on Koosbaine?” and they say “We must conquer Koosbaine to establish a bridgehead into Andromeda to defeat the Rutans, don’t stand in our way, puny Time Lord!”

The next time a Rutan would actually be seen is in a 1995 direct-to-video movie called Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans. This is an independent production made with the cooperation of Robert Holmes’ estate, who own the rights to the aliens and license them out, but without any BBC input. The producers even got Terrance Dicks to write the script for the movie, and cast a bunch of Who and Blake’s 7 actors to play the parts.

It’s not actually a shame that the Rutans have never reappeared on the show, I say. The shapeshifting and electrical powers are interesting, but as characters, all they do is rant about the glory of war, and we get enough of that from the Sontarans!

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Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts one and two)

Our son has quite a delightful theory about “Horror of Fang Rock,” the serial that launched Doctor Who‘s fifteenth season in the fall of 1977. The old lighthouse keeper believes in a monster called the Beast of Fang Rock, which was last allegedly seen eighty years before – the 1820s – on an occasion where two men died. Our son thinks that the shooting star that crashed in the nearby ocean might be the beast teleporting from its home planet, and that it comes to Earth every eighty years to feed. His theory was much, much more detailed than that, but he was talking fast and I wasn’t taking notes. Usually he’s quick to move on, with a brief “creepy!” before finding something to take his mind off the terrors, but not tonight!

“Horror of Fang Rock” was a last-minute substitute for another script by Terrance Dicks that was due to go into production before some high muckity-muck at the BBC decided to cancel it. That story was called The Vampire Mutations, and since the BBC was making an adaptation of Dracula that fall, somebody at the top didn’t want Who doing the same monster. So this was how the new producer, Graham Williams, got his start on the show, having his debut story axed out from under him. Dicks hurriedly wrote this replacement, but the delay meant that other productions got the London facilities and this was made at the BBC’s Birmingham studios.

Lore has it that Tom Baker was in a horrible mood with this story, and transferred his grouchiness into what seems like genuine fear on camera. He’d clashed with the director, the fantastic Paddy Russell, before, and was butting heads with his co-star, Louise Jameson, because he was under the impression that he didn’t actually need a co-star. For the next four seasons, there are pah-lenty of stories of Tom Baker causing headaches for everybody around him behind the scenes, and making Williams’ job extraordinarily difficult!

The tension really works here. “Fang Rock” is a textbook example of a claustrophobic story. It’s all set in a lighthouse on a remote, craggy shore on a dark and foggy night. I don’t like some of the visuals, and a few of the actors really don’t impress me. Colin Douglas, who had been in “The Enemy of the World,” is the only guest star that I really like in this one, but I think it’s a super story. For something that had such a frantic production, it’s very impressive, and our son’s right, it really is creepy.

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts five and six)

As if there weren’t enough reasons to love this story, in part five, the two halves of the investigation collide, and Christopher Benjamin’s motormouthed theater owner Henry Gordon Jago calls on Trevor Baxter’s very reserved and correct medical gentleman Professor George Litefoot, and the two do their utmost to steal the show right out from under the star. They are incredibly watchable together, like capturing lightning in a bottle.

There was, briefly, a proposal for the BBC to give Jago and Litefoot their own show, but it came to nothing. It finally fell to the people at Big Finish to give them a long series of audio plays that began in 2010 and only ended last year after the sad death of Trevor Baxter. There are more than fifty hour-long episodes of Jago & Litefoot available on CD and download. In a better world, we’d have had that many TV episodes in the seventies, so damn and blast those stupid people at the BBC for not making them.

I mean honestly, David Maloney went from this story into pre-production of Blake’s 7. That show’s okay, but I would gladly, gladly swap all 52 of those with the parallel universe where Jago & Litefoot was made instead.

Anyway, part five ends with a cliffhanger that had our son leaping out of his skin. Leela pulls the mask of the villain, a war criminal from three thousand years in Earth’s future called Magnus Greel, and reveals a melting, blobby mess, the result of the energy from these failed experiments in time travel causing his cells to break down. He went behind the sofa and waited right there until the recap was over. Overall, the more-complex-than-usual story and shelves full of literary allusions all conspired to make this not one of his favorite stories, but he absolutely loved the climax, and was completely delighted with the Doctor hearing the bells of a street vendor and treating all his friends to some muffins.

And with this, we come to the end of an era. With Philip Hinchcliffe moved off the show, the new producer would be Graham Williams, who will not get to enjoy the stability and continuity of a production team or actors that his predecessor had, and would be putting out fires and managing some pretty cruel budgetary restrictions before his era will come to an ignominious end with a story being canceled midstream. There are still some great stories to come, but there are also going to be far more turkeys than we’ve seen in the previous three seasons. That said, there are three or four stories coming up that I haven’t seen in many years and have mostly forgotten. I enjoyed “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster” far more than conventional wisdom suggests, so we might have some fun to come…

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll start watching season fifteen in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts three and four)

This is so good. There’s an amazing moment in part four where the Doctor attends what turns out to be Li H’sen Chang’s final stage performance. We know that Chang intends to kill the Doctor, and the Doctor’s also got a pretty shrewd idea that’s what he’s planning. Chang brandishes a pistol as part of his stage act. Earlier, we saw him load it. Is he planning to kill the Doctor in an “accident?” Just to press home the point, without blinking, the Doctor moves the target closer to his own face. You can hear a pin drop.

The whole story is just terrific. The direction, the design, and all of the performances are as good as you could get in 1977. It’s even better than I remembered it.

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts one and two)

We’ve come to the completely amazing “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” and it’s not going to be one of our son’s favorite Who stories. We took a short break between episodes to explain the cultural background to the adventure and noticed he was really, really tired. He spent the night with a buddy last night and got maybe six hours of sleep and played hard most of the day. He and I may have to watch these two parts again tomorrow afternoon, and I wouldn’t object if we do.

“Talons” is the farewell outing for director David Maloney, who had helmed many adventures in the seventies and was moving on to other jobs, and for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was being moved to other jobs. A teevee watchdog group had been giving the BBC headaches about the violence of the last season or two, hitting new heights of grievance this year, so Hinchcliffe was told that he’d be producing a new cop show called Target after this story, while the fellow who devised and developed Target, Graham Williams, would get Hinchcliffe’s job.

And so they go out with a bang, overspending massively and visibly on one of Robert Holmes’ very best scripts. “Talons” is a love letter to Victorian fiction and lore. As we explained to our son, this is not quite the real world, it’s the world of Sax Rohmer novels and Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where Jack the Ripper is on everyone’s mind, and that Giant Rat of Sumatra that Dr. Watson never could bring himself to write about is crawling around the London sewers. The Doctor dresses as Holmes and Leela is playing Eliza Doolittle.

We also explained the elephant in the room that troubles everybody who writes about “Talons” in this time: in 1977, there were enough people at the BBC to decide it would be okay for a white actor to get his eyes pulled back and made up to play Li H’Sen Chang. I don’t object to the depiction of all the Chinese characters as just part of a criminal gang; this is a story about archetypes from the idealized world of tawdry literature. Many people may love Doyle, Collins, Reginald Barrett, and all those Rivals that Hugh Greene anthologized, and many others may venerate them, but it’s tawdry literature all the same, and not the real world.

I wish that they had not cast John Bennett as Chang, just as I wish they had not cast Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in those movies he made. But they did, and the world at the time found it acceptable, and I’m not going to condemn them for it from a position of We Know Better These Days. We told our son that We Do, in fact, Know Better These Days, as we often do, and he gets that this is old TV and that a program made today would find a Chinese actor for a role like this.

Other than this disagreeable casting, the production is excellent. Leela has a lot to do and she’s incredibly amusing dropped into polite Victorian society. Christopher Benjamin is all kinds of fun as the theater owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and there’s a living ventriloquist doll who stalks around the foggy streets of London with a knife. There’s just so much to love in this story.

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