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Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos (part two)

I really wish Sil had come back for a rematch against Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. I’d have liked to see him in a story that I enjoyed just once.

Anyway, I say that Sil is by miles the best thing about “Varos,” but there is one very good scene where Martin Jarvis’s character tries to reason with a guard into doing the right thing. Other than Nabil Shaban being so very entertaining with his gargling and hollering as Sil, Jarvis’s performance in that scene is honestly the only thing about this episode I liked at all.

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Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos (part one)

In 1976 and 1978, the BBC presented two runs of what sounds like an incredibly strange drama called Gangsters, which began as a hard-hitting look at crime and racism in a northern city but mutated into a surreal story about writing a television series about crime and racism in a northern city. It might have been the Velvet Underground of TV: not very many people watched it, but everybody who did went on to write for television. It starred Maurice Colbourne, who we saw as Lytton in the previous adventure, and was scripted by Philip Martin, who was invited by script editor Eric Saward to craft this odd, multi-layered, and deliberately unpleasant story. It’s about a former prison planet whose impoverished population get their kicks watching televised executions and torture.

I don’t like this story at all. I think it’s fake, unbelievable, and full of really bad performances, with two exceptions. First, they got the reliable Martin Jarvis in to play the planet’s governor, and second, they introduced Nabil Shaban as a slimy, disgusting, and absolutely wonderful slug-creature called Sil. Sil is obsessed with violence and profit, a big dreamer with a short temper. He’s hilarious and by miles the best thing about the two stories where he appears.

Our son enjoyed this quite a lot more than I was expecting. He really liked the scenes where “the folks at home” comment on the action and cast their votes for whether the governor should hold firm on the price of a mineral that Sil’s corporation desires. “I would have voted no, too,” he said, joining the 900-plus thousand who agreed. The population of Varos is only about a million and a half, it seems. Props to Martin and Saward for introducing an “interactive” element, of sorts, to the story, because that’s exactly the sort of thing to catch the attention of seven year-olds!

(A note on picture quality: This story was one of the first to be released on DVD in North America, through BBC Video’s old deal with Warner Brothers, and it looks incredibly dull and bland. I’m reliably assured that if you click the picture and order the subsequent “special edition,” what you’ll get is far more vivid and colorful than the original version, but I don’t care enough about the story to make the investment, honestly.)

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part six)

I realize that in a serial packed with downright poor special effects, this is like Woody Allen pointing out the lighting choices in porn, but that Triceratops is too big.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this story, while still wishing that there was some more dinosaur action than what we got. It’s the sort of story you either have to watch when you’re very small and can’t really tell a poor effect from a good one, or old enough to look past them as best you can and appreciate the location work and the acting. Storywise, the Pertwee era formula of five serials a season – two in four parts and three in six – once again got in the way. Cut two episodes from this, and one each from the other two six-parters, and they’d all improve and they could have spent four episodes on a sixth serial. But we have what we have, and this is in the end a very charming adventure with some really good moments despite its many problems.

This seems to write out Richard Franklin’s character of Captain Yates, who, the Brigadier tells us, will be sent on extended sick leave before getting the chance to quietly resign, but he’ll actually be back in a different capacity before long. The guest stars that I most enjoyed – John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles – will also return in memorable parts in the future, and director Paddy Russell will also be back for two very good stories with Tom Baker.

Strangely, the farewell with this serial is to writer Malcolm Hulke, who had contributed so many good adventures but apparently was tired of working in television and used an argument with the producers to explain his exit. Part one of this story had a slightly modified title: just “Invasion” part one, not “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” Hulke, who passed away three years later, was said to have been outraged by this, though what Barry Letts apparently intended was to keep the appearance of the dinosaurs a surprise.

That said, there’s an annoying claim in places like Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time series that Letts was being foolish to try and keep the appearance of the dinosaurs at the cliffhanger of part one a surprise, when a pterodactyl and a Tyrannosaurus both show up earlier in part one. They missed the point: when you don’t know what has invaded, as indeed our son didn’t, then the revelation of these monsters at key points in part one is thrilling! It gives huge surprises to the young audience again and again, not only at the cliffhanger.

Some writers who look back at Who from the comfort of middle-aged cynicism sometimes forget that not everybody who absorbs the series does so with the crutches of the Radio Times or blogs or Wikipedia or forums or academic essays. They should watch more of it with a kid. It’s even more fun this way. You can even (mostly) overlook the special effects catastrophes.

Let’s see if my words come back to haunt me when we start the next adventure, because I don’t believe any amount of goodwill from a kid can salvage it.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (parts four and five)

Could we just take a moment to enjoy the Doctor’s wonderful new car? It was made for Jon Pertwee by a famous car designer, Pete Farries, in 1973, and was called “the Alien.” In-continuity, fans refer to it as the Whomobile, though the producer sensibly never allowed that name to be spoken onscreen. Pertwee owned the car for about a decade and occasionally made personal appearances in it. One of the car’s subsequent owners lent it back so it could appear in the 1993 documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS.

Conventional wisdom has it that parts four and five are very, very slow and full of padding. I think I have to agree with this, especially with all of part four’s slow and quiet creeping about hidden bases, but I was impressed with the on-location chase material in episode five. With the caveat that it’s all that mostly unnecessary running around that mid-serial Doctor Who always seems to give us, it’s shot incredibly well. This isn’t the workmanlike direction of a Paul Bernard or a Michael E. Briant; Paddy Russell is excellent. Her work in the studio is really good, too, but the location stuff is easily on the same level as the (rightly) celebrated Douglas Camfield.

Our son’s really enjoying this one, despite very limited dinosaur business in these two parts. He got a real kick out of the jeep chase in part five. My favorite part is when Sergeant Benton instantly and sadly accepts the Doctor’s claim that Captain Yates has betrayed them, and says that the Doctor had better get on with overpowering him so that he can escape. I love how Benton completely and absolutely trusts the Doctor. Our hero may think of the Brigadier as one of his best friends, but the loyal sergeant never needs any evidence to know that the Doctor is always right.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part three)

I’m sure that you good readers are over the age of six, and consequently unable to see the beast in the photo above as anything other than a deeply unconvincing puppet. But if you’re six, the scene where the Tyrannosaur wakes up and smashes its way out of the hangar is really amazingly convincing. Our kid was back behind the sofa for the first time in a while, holding my hand and worried out of his mind for Sarah, who was locked inside with it. This provided all the “rampage” that our son required last night, although it was a bit more frightening than he was expecting!

Apart from one bizarrely dunderheaded move – shooting flash photos of the dinosaur in a darkened hangar through a pane of glass isn’t going to result in very good photos, Journalist Girl – isn’t Sarah just awesome in this? She’s not just coming up with alternate theories, she’s checking with scientists at Oxford and the editor of Nature to give them weight. And with one man representing the British government, he’s the man to tackle when she has another theory about where whomever is behind this is getting their energy.

The minister turns out to be Traitor # 2 – it isn’t a surprise at all – but the cliffhanger is one of my all-time favorites. The minister and the two scientists lock Sarah in a room where she’s hypnotized. She wakes up with a nice denim-clad hippie welcoming her to consciousness. She’s been dressed in denim as well, and he reminds her that they’re on a spaceship on the way to their new home. They left Earth three months ago! Plot twists don’t get better. Imagine having to wonder for a week what would happen next.

At this point, we’re 25 minutes away from a memorable conclusion, because this would have made such a good four-parter. Unfortunately, we’ve still got 75 minutes to go. Maybe a fast new car will speed things up? We’ll find out after a short break!

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part two)

After the production team finished work on Moonbase 3, they reconvened for a run of five Doctor Who stories that is nobody’s favorite run. It’s probably the weakest run until the mid-eighties, and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” is, barely, my favorite of the five. In its defense, the location work is nice, and director Paddy Russell put together some really good footage of the abandoned London. There are two absolutely terrific plot twists, and three really great guest actors: John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles. Really great guest stars are going to be kind of thin on the ground after this for a while. Until Peter Miles shows up again next season, actually.

But of course, it’s not all going to be as good as it could be. This is barely a four-part adventure dragged out to six, for starters. Since it could just as well have started at the beginning of part two as part one, that’s an issue. The first of the absolutely terrific plot twists that I mentioned happens in this episode. It’s revealed that Captain Yates is, for some reason, working for the two scientists – Miles and Jarvis – who are fiddling with time and dropping dinosaurs in central London for several minutes at a stretch. Without spoiling things for my wife, who will read this before seeing what’s to come, there are actually four big plot twists in this story. Two are real stunners and two… well, they’re not stunning at all. In short, this is a story that starts very well and inexorably runs out of steam.

And then there are the visual effects, which are probably as bad as Doctor Who would ever get. I’m sympathetic and understanding, and I get it: the puppeteers simply did not have anything like enough time to do this right. The puppets barely twitch and the yellow-screen chromakey is never aligned right, so the actors just have to guess and hope for the best. It’s all very distracting and looks awful if you’re older than, say, our son.

Our kid is just the right age for this. Any older and he might just join us moaners in complaining. As it is, his only objection so far is that the Tyrannosaurus has really huge nostrils, which is a fair point. He is really happy with the dinosaur action, but he has a stipulation about it. He wishes there was more “rampaging,” as do we all, but I reminded him that all the rampaging dinosaurs in Land of the Lost had him constantly hiding in terror. So he qualified his answer to explain that he’d like to see more rampaging where just buildings get knocked down, but nobody gets scared. Sounds like he’s describing that old video game that they’re adapting to make an “Everything Explodes Again” movie that stars Dwayne Johnson and/or Vin Diesel next year.

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