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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts three and four)

You may not believe this, but for me, the most memorable moments in “Planet of Fire” aren’t actually Nicola Bryant’s scenes in her bikini, delightful though those all-too-short scenes are. It’s not even the surprising – and surprisingly sad – farewell to Kamelion, as the robot begs for death and the Doctor obliges him. It’s not even anything to do with the terrific Peter Wyngarde, because he is so amazingly wasted in a role that just about anybody his age could have played.

No, the best part of “Planet of Fire” is the cliffhanger to part three and the great little bitchfest between the Master and Peri. After a third episode that’s even more boring than I remembered, it ends with the terrific surprise that the Master has accidentally shrunk himself and has been controlling Kamelion from a little control room about the size of a shoeshine boy’s box. This shocked our son so much that he fumbled his exclamation, shouting “What the world – wide – world?!” as the credits rolled. In part four, Peri gets a great moment when the Master, having scurried to his ship’s console and hidden inside, continues threatening her and she’s not having it. “You come out here and say that,” she shouts, and we all laughed. The scene honestly isn’t very well staged, but Anthony Ainley and Nicola Bryant sure did play it well.

But there’s another interesting thing about “Planet of Fire,” and that’s the departure of Turlough. All along, he’s felt like the producer and writers had no idea what they wanted to do with this character, and some of what’s revealed here seems very, very contradictory to what they were saying about him just months previously. Turlough was apparently a junior military officer on the losing side of a civil war on the planet Trion. So he’s presumably older than I thought, which makes his apparent “incarceration” in a boarding school even more ridiculous.

This is what they do with military prisoners on Trion: sentence them to go to school on less developed planets, where they will steal cars and pester the unpopular kids, under the watchful eye of a “strange solicitor” in London? Honestly, even knowing already about Turlough’s nonsensical past, it makes even less sense watched cohesively. It’s an early example of what would later exasperate me about The X Files or Lost. If you come up with the story in the first place, instead of inventing something later on to link all the jigsaw pieces together, it stands a much better chance of making sense!

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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts one and two)

Peter Grimwade’s “Planet of Fire” is the third Doctor Who story in a row to elicit just a shrug, but man alive, this one should have been better. There’s location filming in Lanzarote helmed by Fiona Cumming, a great guest star, errrm, the Master and Kamelion but never mind, and the debut of a new companion. It’s Peri, who becomes the first American to travel in the TARDIS.

I won’t hear a bad word about the actress who plays Peri. Her name is Nicola Bryant, and not only is she a perfectly good actress – and Peri gets a few really great scenes in later stories – she’s a fabulous ambassador for Doctor Who. Nobody’s paying her to be a positive force in fandom. This is a show she left thirty-plus years ago, and she’s still singing its praises and welcoming new actors to the family. (Plus, if you like dogs, she’s a great advocate for animal welfare and is always sharing pictures of her family pets on Twitter!)

But because I contradict myself and contain multitudes, I can call myself a fan of Nicola Bryant and also think that casting a British actress while claiming the new character was meant to appeal to the show’s new American audience was an unusual decision. (See the comments for more on that topic.) Peri’s always divided opinions. I bet that for every person I’ve ever met who liked Peri, I’ve met five who just spit nails at the mention of her name. That said, I have always wondered how the character would have gone over had the BBC found a way to get a known American actress, such as, say, Lisa Whelchel, who was Blair on The Facts of Life, to play Peri?

I was keen to get more input from my son into this critical situation, but he had a very long day, was very over-tired, and his initially pleasant surprise that Kamelion was actually present in this story eventually turned sour when the Master turned up as well. He didn’t have an opinion about Peri and I don’t think he paid very much attention to part two of this story at all.

Joining the regular cast in Lanzarote, there are a few fellows in old-fashioned robes, chief among them the great Peter Wyngarde. Unfortunately, Wyngarde is playing another dreary religious lunatic. You don’t suppose all these prophecies about a strange being called Logar are going to have a scientific explanation in the final episode, do you? Stopping Nicola Bryant from being the only woman with a speaking part, Barbara Shelley is here as well, but she doesn’t have very much to do. She’s so irrelevant to the plot that she just gets to appear in the studio material back in London, having missed out on the trip to Lanzarote.

Well, hopefully our son will wake up for part three, and it won’t be as much of a snooze fest as I remember. Fingers crossed!

Photo credit (Lisa Whelchel): https://www.pinterest.com/mercyjacobs/

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Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks (parts three and four)

If you read around, you’ll find some stories about how the American movie version of “Resurrection of the Daleks” was edited together from a complete cut of the first half, and a rough cut, lacking music, voiceovers, and sound effects, of the second. These stories don’t really explain how weird, ridiculous, and strange the experience was. Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, made all sorts of dumb decisions about the prints that they offered stations, but one of the worst was not phoning the BBC to get a replacement copy. We were stuck with that thing for years.

Bear in mind that for a long time, your average American viewer might not have had any idea that these 90-minute adventures were edited movie versions of four-part serials. There were clues that something was up, though. There were occasional editing hiccups, like the one halfway through “Arc of Infinity.” For some reason, the editor used the end of part two rather than the recap at the beginning of part three, so the shot of Sarah Sutton has the sound of the cliffhanger “sting” over her face right before the credits rolled.

So with “Resurrection,” halfway through, there’s the clumsiest edit in the universe. Rodney Bewes’s character says “I’m a Dalek agent,” and the screen goes black for a half-second, and then picks up halfway through a Dalek shouting “-terminate” and there isn’t any music or sound effects anymore. This makes some of the scenes completely comical. When the actress playing the civilian advisor to the military is deafened by a weird sci-fi sound, there isn’t actually any sound. She just falls over with her hands over her ears making odd noises. Another scene doesn’t have a pair of voiceovers by Terry Molloy, so he just opens a door and closes it for no apparent reason. Then there’s a trooper who gets shot in part four. With the music blaring, you can barely hear him, but without the music, he steals the scene when he yodels “Eeee-ohhh-urrrrp!” before falling over.

I wasn’t a big buyer of the Who VHS range. The tapes – at least the American tapes manufactured by CBS/Fox, were notorious among some of my friends for being bargain-basement quality. But I did buy the VHS of “Resurrection” just so I could see the second half as it was meant to be seen and heard!

While our son absolutely loved all the Daleks blowing each other to pieces, the most interesting thing to me about this story is that it writes Tegan out in a remarkably grim and unhappy way. The whole thing is relentlessly bleak – not just the entire supporting cast, but literally every character we see onscreen at all, save the resourceful mercenary Lytton and his two guards, all die – and part three of the story doesn’t just tread water as part threes in Doctor Who generally do, it’s tediously violent and gruesome while also barely advancing the plot. And so this is the point where Tegan decides that she just can’t stand it any more, and leaves. I think the final punch in her gut is the Doctor telling her that he intends to murder Davros. So when it’s finally safe to go because everyone is dead, she shakes the Doctor and Turlough’s hands and she’s gone before she bursts into tears. It’s so abrupt and sad, and it’s always punched me in the gut.

I was talking with our son two nights ago about the idea of fan theories. He was talking with some other kids about connections in the Pixar universe, and how Andy’s mom in Toy Story might have been Jessie’s original owner. I told him that there were all sorts of fan theories in Doctor Who and that I’d tell him about one in a couple of days. That’s because the previous day, I saw that somebody had suggested that the gun used in the most recent episode, “Resolution,” came from the warehouse in this adventure.

A couple of other theories come to mind about this story. Tegan leaves with literally nothing but the clothes on her back. She doesn’t even have a handbag, and that miniskirt doesn’t look like it has pockets. I think she made a collect call and phoned her grandfather, who we met in “The Awakening,” and he took the train up from Little Hodcombe to get her.

I was reminded of one of the many great ideas that Virgin’s line of Doctor Who novels introduced in the 1990s. At one point, the Doctor’s companion Bernice is left abandoned in 1909 and makes use of the Doctor’s bank account. At some point, the Doctor realized that it might be a good idea to have a resource available to any of his companions that get stranded or stuck in the UK, and time travellers should be pretty good about taking advantage of compound interest. I figure that’s part of Companion Orientation, getting the account number and a couple of withdrawal slips, and maybe an ATM / debit card for when you’re on the right side of the 1980s, so that when you call it off because it’s not fun anymore, you can take out a few hundred pounds to get your life back in order. All Tegan would need is proper identification… so maybe she should have grabbed her purse!

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Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks (parts one and two)

Yeah, that’s the Doctor carrying a pistol. I’d ask what the writer was thinking, but the writer was the program’s script editor Eric Saward, who had a very strong interest in telling stories about tough guys with guns. One of the tough guys with guns in this story is a mercenary working for the Daleks called Commander Lytton, played by Maurice Colbourne, and it’s fairly obvious across this story and the character’s next appearance that Saward would much, much rather have been working on a program called Commander Lytton, Space Badass.

Joining Colbourne in this story is Rodney Bewes, yet another example of the show casting a really recognizable face from a sitcom. Bewes is best remembered as one of The Likely Lads, a much-loved comedy from the sixties and seventies, and was also the straight man to the puppet Basil Brush for many years. This is the first adventure to feature Terry Molloy in the role of Davros. Molloy seems to try to make Davros much more disgusting, with a constant mouthful of spit and bile, than either of the previous actors to play him did.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, “Resurrection of the Daleks” was one of my favorite adventures, because it’s a story with lots of tough guys talking macho, and lots of guns, and, in our son’s favorite moment – most kids’ favorite moment, I bet – a Dalek gets shoved out a second story window and blows up when it lands dome-first on the pavement. I kind of prefer these less invincible Daleks, honestly. I think this story has aged very, very badly, but our kid, who was already riding high on the thrill of a much more invincible Dalek in Tuesday night’s new episode, “Resolution,” was in heaven.

More to talk about in the serial’s second half, though, so stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Frontios (parts three and four)

Well, how nice. There’s a scene with Janet Fielding in her awesomely eighties outfit and one of the big bug monsters. Saves me the trouble of taking two pictures.

From the perspective of watching TV with my kid, the most interesting surprise about “Frontios” is that he was much more frightened by it than I was expecting. There’s a grisly body horror aspect to the story – it’s really driven home in writer Christopher H. Bidmead’s novelization of the script for Target Books’ line, which is downright disgusting – which centers around the bug monsters’ excavation machine. They need living humanoid minds to run the thing, and so the cliffhanger to part three reveals that a character everybody thought was dead is still hanging on, zombie-like, inside the machine. Our son volunteered that this was the scariest adventure since “Pyramids of Mars”, which remains his benchmark for scary Doctor Who.

From my own perspective, there’s a surprising revelation that the most intelligent bug monster, the one who controls all the others, is surprisingly well-read for bug monsters. He knows about Gallifrey and TARDISes, but he also specifically has heard of the Doctor. This may be one of the first occasions in the show where our hero’s reputation has preceded him quite this much. You can imagine Young Steven Moffat jumping at what a great idea it is that the Doctor’s such a big-shot legend.

It’s established that the Tractators are very long-lived specifically, and we can infer that their species has been around, digging up planets, for many millions of years, since Turlough’s home planet was once infested with them, and this story is set so far in the future that the Time Lords forbid TARDISes from going any farther. Perhaps the rank-and-file digger bugs just shuffle about in their tunnels while the bright one goes out, reads the papers, and stays abreast of cosmic events. He talks a lot, in his awesomely eighties electronic-synthesizer voice, so maybe he’s been gossiping with all the villains from all the other set-so-far-in-the-future stories about who beat ’em.

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Doctor Who: Frontios (parts one and two)

“Frontios” is the story with the big ugly monsters that look like wood lice. We may get a clear shot of them for the picture in tomorrow’s post. Our son was doing an admirable job being quite surprisingly freaked out and bothered by what’s happening on the far distant colony planet in this story, so I turned to look at him as the beasts are revealed. You know that scene in so many science fiction movies where the heroes wander right past the pile of rocks that turn out to be a walking rock monster as soon as their backs are turned? Well, that happens here, as two of these big insects helpfully hide their faces against a wall leaving their shells facing toward Mark Strickson and one of this story’s co-stars. The humans leave the frame, and the big bugs turn around and follow them.

I was expecting a gasp, or a cry, or the shielding of our son’s trusty security blanket. Instead he went “Bleugh!” and didn’t stop with the “yucks” until several minutes after the show. “This is terrible! Those Tractator things are disgusting!” Oh, to be seven again!

“Frontios” is… okay. It’s another one of those stories where the running time would be halved if the besieged good guys would just accept the Doctor’s help instead of thinking he’s the villain. This is often a bore, but never more so than here, when in order for the Doctor to be the villain, he’d have to had started bombarding this colony with meteorites literally three decades previously. I mean, at some point in the last thirty years, the theory that the meteorites are just a softening-up technique before the invasion would have gone back on the shelf.

The besieged people are all stupid and unsympathetic, and guest star Peter Gilmore is stuck playing the far-future version of some dumb general like Thunderbolt Ross. Writer Christopher H. Bidmead came up with an interesting scenario and it’s nice to see the Doctor dig around and investigate things, but he really wants to leave this planet as soon as possible, and who can blame him?

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy rereading Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s About Time series of Who guidebooks, well, the first six of them anyway, and I give each story a preview look in their books to remind myself what to watch for. That’s especially important with “Frontios,” which I’ve always remembered as a middling-to-mediocre story that doesn’t hold my interest. I was surprised to read that both writers are extremely complimentary toward this adventure and hail it as a really unique and original story. Two episodes in, and honestly the most memorable things about it, in no particular order, are the Doctor’s “brainy specs,” Janet Fielding’s leather miniskirt, and the silly bug-monster costumes. Then I read a little further and the authors went on to make the quite mad claim that Doug McClure wasn’t in Warlords of Atlantis with Peter Gilmore, when he most emphatically was. Writers! Never trust ’em!

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Doctor Who: The Awakening (parts one and two)

A while back, I said that in the mid-eighties, Doctor Who got complacent. Example one: “The Awakening” is the first story since “Black Orchid” two years previously to have no returning villains. As such, it’s really a breath of fresh air. It’s also incredibly fast-paced for the period, proving that quite a lot of Doctor Who could have been done in about half the time, and it makes the two serials on either side feel even slower by comparison.

I’m happy that “The Awakening” gave our son a couple of good frights. He said this one was very scary, and he hid under his blanket at least three times. It’s about a big stone creature called the Malus that’s been hiding in a church wall for centuries. It feeds on psychic energy and possesses lesser beings into committing violence to feed itself. There’s some guff in the script about spaceships and probes from the planet Halkol to keep this from being a simple, old-fashioned ghost story. All you need to know is that it’s a big animatronic face in a wall that roars and belches smoke and makes people want to kill each other. This may not be art, but it’s a trillion times better than “Warriors of the Deep.”

Joining our heroes this time out, there’s a great guest cast. Back in “Kinda,” the Doctor basically took guest star Nerys Hughes on as his companion of the story. This time, it’s Polly James, who was Hughes’ co-star from the seventies sitcom The Liver Birds. (Oddly, very little of that show – only two of its nine series – has been released on DVD. Still, only £15.09 right now, I might pick that up…) Anyway, as much as I like Janet Fielding, it’s fun watching Peter Davison explaining all the space stuff to good actors with good comic timing like Polly James. Plus, there’s the great Glyn Houston as a villager who finds himself on the heroes’ side, and Dennis Lill as the main baddie.

I also like the way this story ends, with a pile of guest stars agreeing with Tegan and Turlough that it’s high time the Doctor takes a break and everybody’s just going to stay on Earth for a few days. That’s partially because it’s a cute scene, and partially because I’m very naughty and once had an audience laughing hysterically as I made up some very inappropriate fanfic to horrify a very “trad” fan in an explanation what the Doctor got up to in Little Hodcombe. It ended with her screaming “There’s no canonical evidence that happened!”

But I also like the idea that one day in Little Hodcombe, the Doctor was reading the newspaper and saw that there was a charity cricket match in the nearby village of Stockbridge. If you are not familiar with Marvel’s run of Fifth Doctor comics, then I can’t recommend them highly enough. They were written by Steve Parkhouse, and drawn by Dave Gibbons, Mick Austin, and Steve Dillon, and they fit almost perfectly in the space between this story and the next TV one. They’re all collected in the Panini edition The Tides of Time and are huge fun. (I say almost perfectly because they use the version of Rassilon that Parkhouse had invented for the comic in 1981, before he showed up in “The Five Doctors” as a totally different character. Just handwave it or call him Dumbledore or make up some inappropriate fanfic and it’ll all work out.)

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Doctor Who: Warriors of the Deep (parts three and four)

Say what you will about “Warriors of the Deep,” but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen Ingrid Pitt try to kick a pantomime horse to death.

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