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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (part three)

Thank heaven Roger Delgado turns up this week, because otherwise this episode is like watching paint dry. It’s more and more and more of prison cells and Earthmen not believing the Doctor and Jo. It’s agonizingly repetitive. For those of you who missed the previous two parts, don’t worry, because the other characters are going to force Jon Pertwee to explain the plot twice this week. So when the Master arrives toward the end in the guise of the police commissioner of the dominion planet Sirius IV, it’s the best thing by miles.

Once again, though, the story doesn’t pause to consider an avenue that’s a million times more interesting than what it does give us: 26th Century Earth is an authoritarian hellhole. Michael Hawkins’ general tells the weak president that she is in danger of being replaced by a military dictatorship, but she already presides over a planet where political prisoners are immediately sentenced to life imprisonment on the moon. At this time in its life, Doctor Who was not afraid to depict nasty futures and, in the manner of some good science fiction, warn against taking the wrong avenue. But later on, the producers and writers of the 1980s and 2000s would do more with totalitarian governments and pit a more active Doctor against them.

It’s difficult to square the way this Doctor treats future Earth as just another setting for adventures, albeit an ugly one, with the way the Doctor of “The Happiness Patrol” overthrows the government of a corrupt Earth colony, or the way the Doctor of “The Christmas Invasion” decides that Harriet Jones shouldn’t actually be the UK’s prime minister after all. Looking back at nineties fandom, I recall the way that older, Pertwee-loving fans of the show would praise Malcolm Hulke’s political edge while dismissing the show becoming “silly” in the late eighties. But Hulke’s stories, while sometimes brilliantly constructed and full of nuance and question around the issues of corruption, might have been even wilder if he had been allowed to position the character of the Doctor against the horrible corporations and government of the Earth he showed in “Colony in Space” and in this story. In a couple of weeks, we’ll watch “The Green Death,” where the Doctor is pitted against a corporation set on present-day Earth. It’s a shame that he never got the chance to similarly bring down the IMC, or this horrible president.

Meanwhile, I should point out that our son is just barely hanging on to this story, and the whole lot of nothing that doesn’t happen this week didn’t thrill him one bit. He certainly loved “The Three Doctors” and says that it is tied with “The Power of the Daleks” as his favorite adventure, but after the confusion and horrors of the last story and the frustrations of this one, he really, really needs something big to turn things around. But we’ll see that something big in a few days, after taking a little mid-story break.

One other thing to note this week is that Ray Lonnen’s character has left the narrative after two weeks. Episodes one and two were the only Doctor Who credits for this fine actor. Richard Shaw is in this part, and the next, as a trustee in the moon prison. Shaw had appeared in the 1965 serial “The Space Museum” and would appear in Who again five years after this, but we “remember” him best as Ryan, one of the recurring criminals in series five and six of Freewheelers. I use air quotes around remember because our son has watched series six of Freewheelers twice and remembers the character but, of course, doesn’t recognize the actor!

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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (part two)

The Doctor and Jo spend most of part two of “Frontier in Space” in one jail cell or another. It’s a very frustrating episode, since I have never cared for stories in which our hero is a prisoner, but also because the Doctor has a really believable story and nobody wants to listen.

“Frontier in Space” was written by Malcolm Hulke and it follows “Colony in Space” from two years previously in depicting a future Earth that’s really unpleasant and awful. Earth and Draconia are poised on the brink of a second galactic war and some third party is causing trouble. Earthmen, represented by a president who seems mostly ineffective and a general whose bloodlust is visible from space, believe the Doctor and Jo are Draconian agents, and the Draconians, who briefly capture the Doctor, think that the general is using them as patsies to justify his gearing up for war. Michael Hawkins has a terribly thankless job in playing this general. Ray Lonnen, who would later star in the amazing spy series The Sandbaggers, has a small role as an Earth soldier.

So yes, there’s a lot of back and forth in this story so far, but I’m surprised that the Doctor didn’t follow an interesting lead that the Draconian ambassador suggested. The Doctor knows that some third party is employing Ogrons to raid Earth freighters, and the Draconians think the general is behind everything. Who’s to say that the general didn’t hire the Ogrons? Obviously he didn’t, but since Hawkins’ portrayal is spelling the man out as a baddie, it’s odd that the script didn’t even start to consider him as a suspect.

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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (part one)

We had an unhappy surprise last night as we were putting our son to bed. We told him about the plans for today and that we would be watching the next episode of Doctor Who, and he looked at the ground and said that he didn’t want to watch it. Now, back during “The Seeds of Death,” he threatened to stop watching the show for a month if the Ice Warriors ended up winning, but this was new.

So a little later, after he was tucked in, I went back in his bedroom and sat on his bed with him and asked “Is there something about Doctor Who that’s bothering you?” He seemed reluctant to say beyond a quiet “…yeah.” Then I got it. “Are you afraid of the Drashigs?” His eyes got wide and he nodded firmly.

I assured him that the Drashigs would never again appear in the show, except as pictures, or, in a couple of moments in this story, hallucinations. He confirmed that they are the scariest monster that he’s ever seen anywhere and worried that there would be a monster in this new story. I told him that we’ll be meeting a new race of aliens called Draconians, but that they are not monsters. And that’s the core of this story, oddly enough. The frightened soldiers of the expanding Earth empire refuses to see them as anything but monsters.

The Draconians are, no joke, one of the very best designs for aliens in the entirety of Doctor Who, and it really is surprising that these guys never returned to the series, because they’re incredibly successful both as visuals and as interesting alien characters. They showed up in comics and novels but I don’t think they’re even mentioned in passing in the TV show again until the 2010 story “The Pandorica Opens.” This story also features the return of the ape-like Ogrons – Paul Bernard also directed their previous appearance – and darned if they didn’t vanish from the series completely after this one as well. Lots of good comics and books use them – Gareth Roberts’ novel The Romance of Crime is a favorite – but the series moved on.

And how did the episode go over? Well, every night, as one of my parts of the bedtime ritual, I tell him what we’re having for supper and what we will watch. So tomorrow, Marie’s making this really terrific sausage and potato skillet meal and we’re watching part two of this story. He made a face, because he’s really not fond of the skillet meal, and grumbled “Yay for Doctor Who, but nuh-uh for that skillet…”

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part six)

Our son impressed me by talking earlier this evening about part five of the story, and the disappointing cliffhanger to part four. He’s really thinking constructively and creatively about the show, which makes me very happy. He was much happier with this installment, except, of course, for the ending, which sees the Master getting away again. It’s difficult to say just how effective an exit that would be in the real world. Surely the British Navy wouldn’t have a great deal of trouble tracking down a stolen hovercraft?

Honestly, parts five and six could have been compacted into one installment. There’s a lot of padding, and a lot of Jo being very loudly worried about the Doctor, and a lot of repetition. The civil servant of the month is just as gluttonous and cowardly, the talk about a lasting peace between humans and Sea Devils isn’t going to go anywhere, and there’s more stomping around the echoey underwater base.

But Pertwee and Delgado continue their beautiful, twinkling chemistry (the Doctor gets to say “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” for the first time), and there’s a lot of well-directed action and explosions. “The Sea Devils” isn’t anybody’s favorite third Doctor story, but it certainly is entertaining, and I’m glad our son enjoyed it!

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part five)

As the Pertwee years continued, they got away from one of the things that defined the series in 1970: the civil servant of the month. With the speaking part played by Clive Morton freed, one of the all-time “best” of this misbegotten bunch shows up, a Parliamentary Permanent Secretary played by Martin Boddey in one of his final roles. He’s supremely vulgar and stupid, and I love the way the director emphasizes his obsession with breakfast and coffee by lingering on his mouth.

Our son says that this story is more scary than exciting. We asked whether it wasn’t exciting when the navy launched (stock footage of) depth charges into the sea, and he said it wasn’t. “That was not exciting because they could have killed the Doctor!” He’s taking everything that Jo Grant says very, very seriously.

For me, this story’s only disappointment is the Sea Devils’ base. It’s a black “limbo” set like we saw in the third season of Batman, with lots of black tablecloths over everything to give it some kind of depth and shape. The designer came up with some interesting ideas for the props within their base, things like alarms and cages, but it’s all undermined by the lack of walls.

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part four)

Thankfully, much better copies of the second half of “The Sea Devils” were available for the wizards at the BBC to restore the visuals. Part four of this story looks great, almost as though fate wanted the monsters to shine. The Sea Devils look organic and wet. The closeups of the latex and rubber show it looking more like skin than the plastic of the monsters in the previous story.

I’ve written before about how we enjoyed the novelizations of the stories in the days before our local PBS station bought them. The book version of this serial wasn’t one of the greats, but it did have a delightful embellishment by writer Malcolm Hulke. Onscreen, we see the doomed Colonel Trenchard get off a couple of shots against the monsters before dying. But in the book, he realizes too late that he left the safety on, a fitting end for the character.

Unfortunately, while the last episode ended with a fantastic cliffhanger, this one… doesn’t. Jo looks into a diving bell. Either the Doctor is inside, dead, or he’s not inside at all. We’ll check back in a few days for the answer.

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part three)

Part three of this story ends with a delicious cliffhanger, with the Doctor and Jo trapped on a beach with a minefield on one side, four men with rifles on another, and a Sea Devil rising from the ocean. It’s a really effective scene that had our son utterly stumped how they’ll get out of this. Helicopters and International Rescue’s Mole were considered.

Speaking of effective, I love how the titular Sea Devils have completely dominated the narrative despite only appearing onscreen for maybe two minutes totally throughout the first three parts. We wondered whether our son would pick up the subtleties in how the Master has convinced Colonel Trenchard to let him take over the prison, and he didn’t. The Master has given him some song and dance about enemy agents operating in British waters, and how only he can stop them, and Trenchard will soon have the thanks of a grateful nation. I think he treated this as new, additional information, like the enemy saboteurs were real, and yet another obstacle and headache.

I think the problem with six year-old viewers is that they will take everything at face value, and not quite understand when characters are being dishonest yet. I realized this when I had to pause the first couple of Avengers episodes we watched because he didn’t really get that Steed and Mrs. Peel will lie about their undercover activities. Television that’s really designed exclusively for younger viewers will wink at the kids a little more obviously.

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part two)

There’s so much to like about “The Sea Devils.” It’s just a terrific and fun adventure story, with some monsters that look fantastic, wonderfully classy and claustrophobic direction, great set design, and a fun performance from Edwin Richfield – he had played the father in the deeply weird serial The Owl Service a few years previously – playing a military role that the Brigadier would not have been right for. The Brig had learned to trust the Doctor’s wild stories, but this is one of the few examples of the Doctor being seen by the authority figure as being utterly mad. I think Richfield had fun playing Captain Hart as an even more weary straight man than Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier.

A slightly more controversial thing to praise in “The Sea Devils” is the music, which is a harsh and discordant wall of electronic noises played by Malcolm Clarke as though he was angry with whomever sold him his synthesizers. Three months after “The Sea Devils” aired, Roxy Music released their debut LP. Writing in The Evening Standard, Andrew Bailey dismissed the record as sounding full of “Dr Who gimmickry.” I’ve no doubt this story was what Bailey had in mind.

That may require a bit of explanation, since Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry have been defined in the public mind by that one melodic song with heartbroken lyrics and sixty-four tracks of dense, interwoven guitars and keyboards that Bry wrote in 1980 and has been rewriting ever since. I don’t mind, because while sure, Bry has evolved into a one-trick pony, it’s a more entertaining and rewarding pony than just about anybody else in music, even if all ten songs on his last LP could have just as easily been released on any of his previous ones.

But before he became the impeccably-dressed cool ruler, Bryan Ferry was downright weird. With his incredibly noisy collaborators Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, and Eddie Jobson, those first three Roxy Music LPs, beyond the crooning odes to accountants and blow-up sex dolls that namecheck Baby Jane Holzer, Lolita, and Guernica, are, musically, unlike pretty much anything in the world… except for what Malcolm Clarke did with this performance. Check ’em out if you don’t believe me. Better yet, find First Kiss, a bootleg of their BBC sessions, where Eno turns the ending of “Ladytron” into a rocket blasting off in a wash of bubbles while Manzanera batters his guitar to death, and an under-rehearsed “Virginia Plain” sounds like a Studebaker built in Frankenstein’s castle.

But if that bootleg’s not immediately available to you, just watch “The Sea Devils.” The cacaphony that goes on while that monster chases the Doctor through the fort sounds so much like the beginning of side two of that first LP that it makes me think about stars shining so bright and growing potatoes by the score.

Interestingly, the Doctor explains to Jo that the Sea Devils are probably related to the Silurians, and that story had a similarly divisive musical score. Well, I say divisive, but I don’t think anybody actually enjoys Carey Blyton’s lunatic kazoo on that story, while this music is amazing. I can’t wait to hear more of it in a couple of nights…

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