Doctor Who: Earthshock (part four)

In 1966, over the course of a legendary twelve-part serial, two of Doctor Who‘s companions were killed. They were both created to die; Katarina and Sara were only around for five weeks and eight weeks respectively. Adric’s death was quite different. And the fallout, in the next episode, is one of just a couple of things about that story I enjoy. Is that enough foreshadowing for you readers?

As kids, we were glad to see Adric go. As a character and as a performance, Matthew Waterhouse’s look and costume, and his often petulant portrayal, all seem almost specifically designed to annoy male teenagers. There are probably essays about why viewers of that age disliked Adric so intensely. I’ve written in the past about how I watched Who in a vacuum in the seventh grade. By the time the Peter Davison years started showing on our PBS station, I was in the eighth grade, with a different set of classmates. Not only was my older pal Blake watching, but so were four or five of us in Pod 8A in late 1984. We were all about thirteen and we all detested Adric. The feeling, I learned, was widespread. Eighteen months later, Peter Davison was at a convention in Atlanta and explained by way of an explosion noise into a microphone what he thought Adric’s best moment was and the whole room applauded.

But as for the viewers in the seven year-old age bracket, the one in our house was incredibly surprised and taken aback. His older brother and sister were also in elementary school when they saw this story and were also stunned. Smaller kids like Adric. He’s not the awkward, oily-haired kid in the school A/V club to them but a young hero to look up to.

As a grownup – assuming I can be called a grownup – of course I’ve come to like Adric more and more, especially seeing him through my kids’ eyes. It’s true that Matthew Waterhouse’s performance and line delivery often take me out of the fiction, to say it mildly, and I do like the way that Adric doesn’t even get to die heroically. He’s at least granted a stoic finale, and the music is subtle and perfectly in tone with the moment. For the only time in the show’s history, the credits of part four roll silently. The camera lingers over Adric’s broken gold star badge while the program gives one of its main characters a moment of silence, and I think it’s done extremely well.

It’s certainly the best in-the-show death any companion’s probably ever going to get. I’m never pleased when they undermine the drama of a death with a get-out clause a week or two later, as Steven Moffat did as often as possible. This was done right, and I really enjoyed it. Adric may or may not have been a great character, but he got a terrific ending.

Doctor Who: Earthshock (parts two and three)

Well, what I was going to say last night, before our son went and stole my thunder, is that “Earthshock” is a very popular and very entertaining story written by Eric Saward and directed, with incredible tension and a frantic pace that Who rarely employed as effectively as here, by Peter Grimwade. It featured the return of the Cybermen after seven years away from the program.

And it features Beryl Reid, interestingly, as one of the main guest stars. Reid is one of those names in British entertainment largely unknown to Americans, but I’m assured that she’s a very curious choice. It strikes me as part of the same spirit of season nineteen, where we’ve seen more prominent “guest stars” better known for starring comedy roles than ever before, rather than returning to the usual bench of character actors. I mean, sure, you want somebody to play the chief constable in a quiet English village in 1925, you go to Moray Watson (or you phone Glyn Houston if Watson turns it down), but I like seeing people like Reid, Nerys Hughes, and Michael Robbins in parts like these.

(I’ve also been oddball-casting what this season of Who would have looked like as an American show in 1982 to drive home just how strange these choices are. I figure Karl Malden as Monarch, Penny Marshall as Dr. Todd, and John Ritter as Richard Mace. I can’t quite decide between Betty White or Jean Stapleton as Captain Briggs.)

Anyway, in the nineties, fandom started turning on “Earthshock” because it’s full of tough men with guns trying to be macho. There’s more of this to come in the Eric Saward years, which is a disappointment to people who only want Doctor Who to be about Tom Baker trading witty insults with Julian Glover. That said, I’m not looking all that forward to a couple of upcoming adventures which don’t have the great bonus of Peter Grimwade’s direction. Considering the severe limitations of videotaping gun battles “as live” in a studio, the shootouts in “Earthshock” rank among the best in the whole program.

And they had our kid on the edge of his seat, up off his seat, hiding behind the sofa, and having a complete blast. He says that he totally loves the action in this story, but he’s also simultaneously protesting that the Cybermen are too scary. “I like action, but the Cybermen are about domination, not action!” That, and their thumbs are mean, we mustn’t forget.

Doctor Who: Earthshock (part one)

“Oh, come on! Come on!”

Was that a cool cliffhanger, Little Dude?

“No! It was NOT a cool cliffhanger!”

Really? Don’t you want to see what happens next?

“Duh, yeah!”

Well, a cool cliffhanger makes you want to see what happens next. So…

“But it’s the Cybermen! And they’re TOO MEAN!”

They’re too mean?

“The Cybermen are mean! They are TOTALLY mean! Even their thumbs are mean! They’re even meaner than the Daleks! The Daleks are only HALF-mean and the Cybermen are all mean. They want to take over EVERYTHING!”

Millions of opinions about Doctor Who have been voiced in fifty-five years. I think I like this one best of all.

Doctor Who: Black Orchid (parts one and two)

“Black Orchid” is another story that I could talk about all day. It’s certainly got a flaw or ten, but it’s just so incredibly likable and charming that it doesn’t really matter too much to me. The cricket and the silliness and the fancy dress party at the big country house are enough to paper over most of the story’s problems. Plus I absolutely love Tegan boozing up and dancing the Charleston with Moray Watson. Until there’s a murder, I choose to think this is the sort of thing that usually happens to our heroes when there’s not a disaster: they gatecrash parties, eat well, play some cricket and leave before their cover’s blown. Maybe do some shopping or see a museum.

I like how the closest things to villains in the story are a pair of incredibly rich toffs whose world was upturned when the son they thought had died years before turns up hideously scarred and brain damaged and they just try to keep it quiet and lock him in one of the secret chambers of their huge home. These are people who really don’t deserve our sympathy in the end – their selfishness results in the deaths of three innocent people – but the Doctor chooses to forgive them, and, in what must be a first for the show, he actually chooses to stay on Earth for several days, not leaving until after they have had a small funeral service for George, helping the family heal.

Our son was incredibly surprised that this is just a two-part adventure. “That was short!” he exclaimed. I enjoyed playing compare-and-contrast with him about the state of the big country house that we saw in Adam Adamant Lives! the other night. This story’s set in 1925, forty-one years earlier than “The Last Sacrifice,” and Cranleigh Hall is the center of its community, highlighting that between-the-wars opulence that was recapturing the imagination of British television executives in the eighties. Brideshead Revisited had been shown just a couple of months before this and Love in a Cold Climate the year before. New and reasonably high-profile TV adaptations of Christie, Bowen, Sayers, and Allingham were just around the corner.

Doctor Who: The Visitation (parts three and four)

So these are the Tereleptils, and I’ve always thought they were good-looking monsters. They made the interesting, and probably correct, choice, to give the one with the full animatronic mask the additional detail of being horrifically scarred and missing an eye. This unfortunately limited the aliens from ever returning to the show, because they’d have had to start from scratch and rebuild an entirely new head. Otherwise, you’d have dialogue like “You know, I met one of your species on seventeenth century Earth with wounds exactly like yours…”

Actually, they did reuse one of the non-animatronic heads for another alien that made a fleeting appearance in a story four seasons down the line. Perhaps they thought nobody would notice.

Fans and writers have thrown a lot of criticism at the producer of the show throughout the eighties, John Nathan-Turner, and as the program starts getting complacent and annoying – very soon now – I’ll have a lot to say about what I see as some very poor decisions. But let’s give him a round of applause for having that Tereleptil blow up the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver in part three of the story. Nathan-Turner believed that writers were using the device as a crutch instead of coming up with clever and inventive ways around problems. So when the screwdriver explodes, Marie told our son – who’s only seen the latest four episodes of what we call “the modern show” (and enjoyed them very much) – not to worry, that the Doctor can build another. But the beautiful thing is, he doesn’t, not for years.

Doctor Who: The Visitation (parts one and two)

As I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve mentioned the always-evolving production crew of Doctor Who as I go, but I’ve left a small hole with season nineteen because the script editor’s job was strangely in flux that year. About half of the stories were edited by Antony Root, and the other half by Eric Saward, who would keep the job for the next four years, but since they were made way out of transmission order, I wasn’t sure where to mention it.

“The Visitation” is the first of Saward’s scripts for the program, and I think he gets the balance of the character interplay just perfect in this one. He seems to lose interest in the lead characters after this story, preferring instead to use them as foils for the guests. This story, for example, is almost every bit as much about a gravel-voiced highwayman, played by Michael Robbins, the longtime star of On the Buses, as it is about the Doctor and his friends. Later Saward stories would be much more about the guests.

I had meant to give our son a teeny history lesson before we got started tonight, but I forgot. The story will memorably end with a cute revelation about the Great Fire of London in 1666. This, I figured, would be completely lost on our son, because the second grade curriculum in the United States doesn’t actually mention it. So we talked about the rats that the mysterious and scarred alien creature has been keeping in these Plague-fearing times, and then I mentioned that the really big world event that year was the fire, which destroyed thousands of homes. He told me that he knew all about it. Apparently, it’s revealed in one of his Beano Books that not only did Beryl the Peril start the fire, but she also ate five pies while starting it. Well, did she, now!

Doctor Who: Kinda (parts three and four)

“Kinda” is an incredibly dense and layered story, and one that offers more meaty parts for women than we had been seeing in Doctor Who in the late seventies. With Nyssa and Tegan both out of the action, the role of asking questions falls to one of the colonial inspectors, Dr. Todd, played by Nerys Hughes. She had co-starred in the sitcom The Liver Birds throughout the 1970s, another case of the producer looking for very recognizable faces from popular entertainment and casting them against type, as we saw with Stratford Johns in the previous story and will see with Michael Robbins in the next.

Hughes gets one of my favorite moments of the story. Since Dr. Todd is filling the companion role, she peppers the Doctor with questions until he actually comments on it. As soon as they run into one of the Kinda who can speak, it’s he who has all the questions, leading her to rib him on his own curiosity.

The evil Mara finally reveals itself at the end as a giant, colorful snake, which surprised and delighted our son. It’s one of those visual effects that has caused so much grumbling, but it honestly doesn’t look egregiously more fake or plastic than any other alien being from this era of the series to me. It seemed to convince our kid, who says that he enjoyed this story even more than “Four to Doomsday,” so the show’s definitely on a high for him right now.

Just one more note, because I could certainly talk about this one all day, about the interesting lack of deaths in this adventure. The only confirmed death among the characters is that of the old, blind wise woman, Panna. Three of the colonists had vanished before the story opens, and it’s explained that opening a magical, mind-cleansing box that the Kinda use had driven them each mad. Considering that the end of the story sees the other two men from the expedition healed and relaxed, I’d like to think that the other three had thrown off their uniforms and been eating fruits and climbing mountains until the mental stress of the “wheel-turning” Mara had been exorcised and are making their way back to camp as our heroes depart. I think that makes the ending even nicer.

Doctor Who: Kinda (parts one and two)

Because it’s one of my very favorite Doctor Who stories, I have watched Christopher Bailey’s “Kinda” something like thirty times, and I’m always noticing something new. For example, you recall just a couple of days ago, we spotted a fumble in an episode of Adam Adamant Lives! where an actress mistimed her offscreen dash and was caught by one of the cameras. Well, 18-odd minutes into episode two of “Kinda,” one of the camera operators mistimed his move and was caught by one of the other cameras. Look closely at the right side of the screen as Sanders returns to the dome and the airlock door is being raised. There’s a whacking great BBC camera slowly trying to glide out of sight. How’d I never notice that before?

Our son thinks that “Kinda” is incredibly creepy, with the “what’s in the box” cliffhanger of part two really making his hair stand on end, and he’s right. I love how the story focuses on the colonial party in the dome and the threat of the security officer. Bullied and sneered at by the rest of the expedition, he finally snaps and has a nervous breakdown. It’s one of the very rare and very frightening depictions of mental illness in Doctor Who. This guy is unhinged and incredibly dangerous, but he’s not the problem, and the focus on him is a terrific feint.

Outside the dome, Tegan has fallen asleep under a bank of wind chimes and has spent more than a day dreaming of some malicious guy in fancy dress. She’s awakened some mental force that identifies itself as a Mara. The peaceful people of the planet are mostly silent telepathics. Only a few wise women, like the duo we meet here, have “the power of voice.” We also meet Aris, a very unhappy and silent long-haired man whose brother has been taken captive by the colonials. Tegan wakes up with a snake tattoo on her arm, which you might think is evidence that Tegan shouldn’t pass out after a night with the Marines, and, in a brilliant acting performance by Janet Fielding, passes the tattoo across her arm to Aris’s. Suddenly he can laugh and talk. No good will come of this.

Incidentally, Sarah Sutton’s barely in this story. She’s only in parts one and four for a couple of minutes. That’s because the earliest plan for this season had been for seven four-part serials, and Sutton was contracted for 24 of the 28 episodes. The plan had been to write Nyssa out this year, but in part because Peter Davison correctly spotted that the Doctor and Nyssa have good chemistry together (he said, shrewdly), the producer was persuaded to keep her on, instead of writing her out in story six, whatever that one was to be. At the same time, the producer decided to use the budget for two of the episodes to make the K9 and Company pilot. All this meant that there wasn’t a way to accommodate Sutton without dropping her from most of one adventure, making this the first time that a companion got a couple of weeks off in the middle of a story since the Patrick Troughton years.

Doctor Who: Four To Doomsday (parts three and four)

I’m pleased to report that our son really, really liked this adventure. In fact, he was so thrilled that when the Doctor uses his cricket ball to give himself the momentum to drift backward through the vacuum of space to the TARDIS, he actually applauded. So we felt a little bad bursting the bubble and telling him just how utterly ridiculous the science in that scene was, but if we’re going to point out when television gets it wrong when it comes to social issues, we need to be consistent across the board and talk about bad science as well.

Speaking of social issues, there’s a remarkable part of this story where Adric swallows the villain’s rhetoric completely and thinks Monarch makes some very valuable points, pretty much like any other fourteen year-old idiot who starts hearing some claptrap on YouTube about how taxes are bad and falls down a hole. It’s certainly annoying, and it helped make everybody hate Adric when we were younger, but now I’m finding it’s really a fresh take on things to have a character too naive to know better. Incidentally, this story does support both Adric and Nyssa being young teenagers; they’re repeatedly called “children” throughout it.

But our son’s favorite part was the chaos that ensued when all the robots who represent different cultures on Earth being reprogrammed to have their recreational dances at the same time. He also loved Monarch getting smacked by his germs, remembering that Philip Locke’s character specified that even a small amount could reduce organic matter to the size of a grain of salt.

I’m glad he enjoyed the heck out of this story. I’ve never disliked it, but I’ve probably never enjoyed it as much as I did this time around. I think the creepy menace that comes out in the third episode is really well-timed and very effective, and I like the extra characterization paid to Tegan and Adric. Nyssa gets a few good moments, too, proving that for a fourteen or fifteen year-old, she’s incredibly well schooled in science and in philosophy. Yes, that was very entertaining. And the next one has always been among my favorites. I hope it holds up!

Doctor Who: Four To Doomsday (parts one and two)

My abiding memory of Terence Dudley’s “Four to Doomsday” is that it’s incredibly slow. This time around, though, that’s revealed to be a good thing. There’s not an immediate threat or menace in this exploration of a giant spaceship four days from Earth, at least in the first half, anyway. It plays out in almost real time, as the Doctor and his companions explore the ship, which is controlled by Monarch of the planet Urbanka. Two other of his kind are on board, along with several representatives of ancient Earth cultures, and everybody’s lips are sealed about the past or the immediate future.

So it’s great television for a seven year-old who wants to chew on this for a bit. He says that he really likes this one, although the revelation that the friendly fellow from ancient Athens is a robot was a big surprise to him. I like how it plays out in a really enormous and believable space. The spaceship looks and feels completely gigantic, with lots of corridors and chambers.

Joining the regulars this time, there’s Philip Locke and Burt Kwouk as two of the old Earth refugees, but the guest cast is led by – of all people – Stratford Johns as Monarch, resplendent in his green, mottled skin. I reminded our son before we started that Johns had appeared in the great Avengers episode “Legacy of Death” doing a Sidney Greenstreet impression, and that our son certainly wouldn’t recognize him unless I pointed him out. Johns had played DI, and later Superintendent Charles Barlow in more than 200 episodes of four or five different, related series, for more than a decade, and even though he’d stayed real busy since the last of those shows ended and was always in demand, he still strikes me as unlikely for the role of a bipedal frog with a God complex. I mean, Johns is great, but imagine Karl Malden as Monarch. Like that.

Meanwhile, because this was actually the first story in production for season nineteen, everybody remembered that Tegan did not sign on to be a companion and wants to get to Heathrow Airport so she won’t lose her job on her first day. I really like the characterization. She doesn’t want to be here, she is terrified of getting fired. That’s how it should be. Except… while it’s been a few days for her, in Earth time, her aunt was just murdered a couple of hours ago. She even mentions this, but she’s only thinking about her job. Who’s she working with, Qantas? I don’t think that they’ve got the worst HR department on the planet. They will understand that the new girl’s aunt was murdered on the way to Heathrow. They’ll hold the job.

They maybe won’t quite understand that she was murdered by a space alien with a shrink ray, of course…

Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts three and four)

So here we see Anthony Ainley made up as “the Portreeve,” an old, learned man in the strange city of Castrovalva. The disguise worked. I paused in the end credits for part three, where Ainley is credited as “Neil Toynay,” and asked Marie whether she recognized the actor, and she didn’t. “So who is he?” our son asked. “Mom and I saw him the other night in Out of the Unknown,” I said, attempting one more clue. Unknown was a BBC anthology series that started as adaptations of proper, pipe-smoking sci-fi that evolved into original works of psychological horror and the supernatural by the end. What survived the BBC’s wiping is incredibly uneven and occasionally terrible, but almost always interesting to watch. My favorite is the 1966 adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” which is just eye-poppingly amazing. Ainley was the star of a 1971 story called “Welcome Home” which she and I watched Wednesday night. It is almost oppressively creepy, and he’s excellent in it.

So bravo to Ainley, the makeup team, and director Fiona Cumming for pulling it off. When he reveals himself to be the Master in part four, only one of the three people in this audience saw it coming. I honestly don’t remember whether I saw through the disguise when I first saw this in late 1984. I probably didn’t.

Castrovalva is a city on the top of a steep, rocky hill on a quiet and calm wooded planet that made us all want to hike and climb the rocks there. The city is populated by incredibly likable and kind people, one of them played by the fine character actor Michael Sheard, and the Doctor evidently hasn’t paid enough attention to 20th Century popular culture, because he doesn’t spot that the city is built like an MC Escher print, with all the staircases leading to the same place and sometimes upside down.

I’ve noted this little hole in the Doctor’s knowledge before, back when we learned that the Master is a King Crimson fan. I’ll tell you what was going on during the Third Doctor’s exile. He was taking Jo to the National Gallery, name-dropping all the artists he’s known, and telling ribald stories about Titian. Meanwhile, the Master was hanging out in record stores and head shops, seeing what pipe-smoking sci-fi readers were framing on their living room walls, and sneering about snobs who use words like “ribald.”

Our son was very pleased with this story, which was nice, because he’s been more patient than engaged with the last few things we’ve watched together. “I really liked this one,” he told us, singling out the part where one of the Castrovalvan people saves the day by swinging from a chandelier into the Master’s infernal machine. The Master shouts “My web!” when it happens, which is slightly comical. Then he tries to escape in his TARDIS, finds that he can’t use it to get out of the collapsing, recursive geography of Castrovalva, steps outside and bellows “My web!” again, which is more than just “slightly” comical.

So that’s it for Peter Davison’s first adventure. He makes a great team with Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, and Janet Fielding. The story is original, and certainly unlike anything we’ve seen on the show before. The dialogue’s sometimes clumsy, and Tegan must have grown up in a household full of pipe-smoking sci-fi readers, because she has accepted all of this with no confusion or complaint, but this is another very good example of what I was talking about with “The Leisure Hive” when I said that the program is trying to look and sound interesting and different. You really get the sense that everybody involved wants to make this show work.