Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts five and six)

It’s kind of the nature of action-adventure television that the hero needs to have a really good challenge in each story, against villains as resourceful as the protagonist. So in a weird way, it’s kind of refreshing to see the Doctor pitted against some adversaries who are way, way out of their league. The Chameleons did not think this thing through. The Doctor’s able to exploit a massive, massive flaw in their science and technology, and hold all but two of them hostage because these bad guys’ tech is flatly not up to the challenge of interstellar invasion. A more polished script would show these villains as desperate and pitiful rather than malevolent. It’s a missed opportunity, but I did enjoy the tables turning in parts five and six.

In fact, “The Faceless Ones” belongs to a very rare group of original Who stories – “Mawdryn Undead” and “Time and the Rani” are others – that end much more satisfactorily than they began. It’s still very unhurried, but the end of this adventure sees all the humans acting decisively and intelligently, and I like the way the Chameleons know when the jig is up. The fellow that they capture spills the beans on the operation with very little pressure, and Donald Pickering’s character, who’s been playing his main villain part as a posh airline pilot calmly ordering his subordinates around, is intelligent enough to see this is not going to end well for him, and immediately begins negotiating. It’s a shame part six is missing; Pickering and Patrick Troughton have a very interesting face-off toward the end. The animation’s as good as we can hope for, but I’d love to see those actors playing that scene.

Incidentally, while I wish that I could be only positive about the animation, I do think they missed a huge opportunity. When all two dozen of the humans who are connected to their duplicates are located, I’d love to have seen an overhead shot, from an angle much higher than the original director could actually have managed, of all twenty-five bodies laid out in the parking lot. I wish the camera moved around more in general. Why limit themselves to just what the BBC could have done in 1967?

“The Faceless Ones” is a little infamous because of the poor way that they wrote out the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly. The producer at the time didn’t want to continue with the actors Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, so they only appear in parts one, two, and six, and only on location in the last episode, so the BBC could dispense with them as quickly as possible. The story is set literally the day after the previous season’s “The War Machines,” which means that Ben and Polly could pick back up with their old lives as though they’d never been away. It also means that WOTAN, the Chameleons, and the Daleks in the next story were all operating in London in the third week of July, 1966. The World Cup was happening in London at the same time, and Gemini X returned to Earth. Wish I could read a Who-universe newspaper from that week. The Swinging Sixties, man.

We’ll return to the David Tennant days of Doctor Who in May. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts one and two)

The latest animated reconstruction of a lost Doctor Who story is 1967’s “The Faceless Ones,” although in this case the original production wasn’t completely destroyed. Episodes one and three of the serial, written by Malcolm Hulke and David Ellis, were mostly recovered – part three is missing several dozen frames toward the end – and now with animation, we can enjoy the whole thing in this very comprehensive set. It contains the original episodes, telesnap reconstructions of the four missing parts, and both black and white and color animations of all six. It was released in the UK last month; a region one edition is available for pre-order but it has not been scheduled.

“The Faceless Ones” feels kind of long at six parts. It would probably feel long at four. It’s one of those stories where the Doctor and his companions, Jamie, Ben and Polly, make a dumb decision to hide and scatter in a secure area, find something unpleasant, and have to spend an eternity getting people to listen and believe them. It’s Gatwick Airport, 1966, and Polly sees a man murdered by an alien weapon. Meanwhile, the police are becoming suspicious about reports of young people going missing on budget tours to Europe operated by a strange company called Chameleon Tours.

There’s a fine guest cast in the adventure, at least. There’s Bernard Kay as a detective, and Pauline Collins as a furious girl from Liverpool who’s looking for her missing brother. Donald Pickering and Wanda Ventham, who, in a really weird coincidence, both appeared again in a Who serial twenty years later, also have key parts. But the story feels long and is driven by foolish choices, and suffers from that tedious trope where our heroes go find somebody in authority to report a dead body, only to have the body not be there when they return. We’ve all seen that one too many times.

The kid wasn’t especially taken with it either. We watched the original part one and the black and white animation for part two, and his favorite moment was the creepy reveal of a hideous alien. They totally blew part one’s cliffhanger, by the way. The big reveal is the back of the alien’s head. I don’t know what they were thinking; the creature definitely should have turned to look at the camera and given the audience a big shock moment. But that’s this serial all over. It’s very pedestrian and slow, even by the standards of Who at the time. The kid asked to switch to the second DVD and watch the remainder of the story in color, which we’ll do tomorrow night. Hopefully it picks up!

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (parts three and four)

As I mentioned last time, I’ve kept “The Macra Terror” on the shelf for decades, never reading the novelisation or watching a telesnap reconstruction or listening to the BBC’s cassette release. I have, of course, wondered how in the world the production team could have managed a story about giant crabs with the meager resources afforded to them, and when the “Lost in Time” collection of orphaned episodes and clips was released fifteen-odd years ago, the clips suggested “not all that believably.”

In point of fact, for the eight year-old in this audience, “The Macra Terror” moved from being a behind-the-sofa nightmare of a cartoon into a laughing stock when we switched over to disk two to see the surviving footage. There are a few seconds of fragments from a home camera recording of some random moments along with some screams and shocks that the censors in Australia deemed too horrifying for audiences. The cartoon Macra is a swiftly-moving horror, but the real thing was a mostly stationary prop, kept to the shadows with arms and claws waving at the actors. While we would all prefer to have the original, at least the animation doesn’t result in the kids at home guffawing over the production.

In other words, dear Australia: thank you for censoring the story and keeping what you cut in an archive, but I promise, it really, really wasn’t necessary.

Anyway, I’m very glad this story was animated. The DVD package – and there’s an even more packed Blu-ray – contains the story in both black and white and color, along with commentary featuring the serial’s original director, actor Frazer Hines, and three of the guest cast. It’s got telesnap reconstructions of the episodes, the audiotape version that was released in 1992, and the fragments of original footage along with lots of other bonus material. I thought the story was kind of slow and lacked urgency, but the animation was fine and I’m very impressed with the presentation. I hope they have a new cartoon reconstruction in the works for 2020.

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (parts one and two)

“So what’s scarier,” Marie asked our son, “the monsters, or the colony telling everyone that there are no monsters?”

“BOTH,” he shouted.

“The Macra Terror” was a four-part Doctor Who adventure that the BBC showed once, in 1967, sold to a few other countries, and then destroyed. All that’s left is the soundtrack, some photographs, and a few fragments that the Australian Broadcasting Company censored from their copy and left in an archive to be discovered decades later. From that, they’ve built a new animated presentation. It’s not coming out in North America until October for some stupid reason. Why anyone should have to wait in this day and age, I’ve no idea. I’ve had my Region 2 DVD on the shelf for a couple of weeks now.

This has been one of the Who adventures that I’ve deliberately never learned anything about, saving it for tonight’s rainy day. It was originally shown in season four, as Patrick Troughton’s fifth story as the Doctor, with Peter Jeffrey as the “pilot” of a mining colony several centuries in the future. Everybody in the colony works hard and sings happy songs during their down time, because they’re all being subliminally programmed while they sleep to obey orders, don’t question anything, and certainly don’t say anything about gigantic crab monsters that creep around the colony at night. Ben, one of the Doctor’s companions, gets taken in by the overnight hypnosis and soon he’s parroting the official position that “there are no such thing as Macra!”

It may be a new cartoon from a 52 year-old show, but it’s still got the power to thrill and get under audience’s skin. Doctor Who hasn’t frightened our son this much in several months. This was a behind the sofa with the security blanket experience, that left him wide-eyed and very worried for Polly. “This was SUPER SCARY,” he protested.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part six)

I’m really, really glad I never watched the telesnaps or read the novelization of this story so that I could come to it fresh. It climaxes in a fantastic and grim final episode that sees the Daleks gunning down lots and lots of humans, their usefulness at an end. Janley and Lesterson are among the casualties, and Lesterson, by now totally insane, gets a triumphant last line before he gets gunned down.

This was our son’s first exposure to something so violent, and he was wide-eyed, absolutely stunned, when we could see his eyes anyway. He was curled in a ball on Mommy’s lap, ducking under his blanket. He completely loved it and so did I. This serial completely lived up to the hype. There are a few bits from the original production that you can believe would have been improved with a greater budget – like so many Doctor Who stories, we’re asked to believe in a very large colony despite the appearance of just a few sets and a handful of actors – but David Whitaker’s script was razor-sharp, and it was just a joy watching the malevolent, scheming Daleks consolidate their power.

We will be skipping the next two DVDs that are available, “The Underwater Menace” and “The Moonbase,” in order to start in on the next serial that exists in its entirety, and will begin that soon. That means that these cartoons will be the last we’ll see of the characters Ben and Polly, who are among my favorite of all the Doctor Who companions. Sadly, Michael Craze died at the stupidly young age of 56. He didn’t have very many acting jobs following this, and largely left the business in the eighties and ran a pub. Craze had a bad heart, and died the day after seriously injuring himself falling down some stairs. Anneke Wills, an icon of Mod London, later co-starred with Anthony Quayle and Kaz Garas in a really good ITC adventure series, Strange Report, although her role was, in my book, nowhere as large as it should have been. Wills left the business in the seventies and moved to a monastery in Asia for something like a decade. Since returning to the UK, she’s appeared at lots of conventions and does occasional fan-instigated projects and documentaries about Who, and is still breathtaking at age 75.

“The Power of the Daleks” is available on Region 2 DVD. It’ll be out in Region 1 in 2017, with a Blu-Ray to follow. It’s definitely worth buying!

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part four)

How interesting. Last episode, I didn’t quite catch that Janley and Bragen’s subplot scheme is that these two are the leaders of the rebel movement. This time out, they’re pretty close to taking over the colony. The Doctor, Ben, and Polly are all apprehended – actually, Polly is absent from this episode entirely to give actress Anneke Wills a week off, something that happened in Doctor Who frequently in the black and white era, when it was on the air about 46 weeks a year – and Lesterson has been having second thoughts about trusting the Daleks. He is slowly, but surely, completely cracking. And Janley is a hugely effective villain; it’s a shame that she has been overlooked in the canon of great bad guys.

Lesterson’s realization that the Daleks can’t be trusted leads up to one of the show’s most famous cliffhangers. It’s a long sequence where we see that inside the Daleks’ bigger-on-the-inside capsule, there’s a factory where the Daleks are making more of their kind. It’s fantastic, really creepy and effective. On the one hand, I like the way the animation team preserved the sometimes hurried nature of the production, even having an off-center label on a bank of dials underneath “voltage” and “watts,” but I really like the way they’ve made a big room full of these CGI-animated Daleks, without a photographic blowup among them to beef up their ranks.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part three)

I absolutely prefer the Daleks of the sixties to any of their later incarnations. They’re nowhere close to being as powerful as they’d be depicted later, and so they rely on cunning, treachery, and manipulation to get the job done. They prey on the scientist Lesterson’s greed and lust. The colony’s governor can only see as far as the short-term gains of a better production run in the local mines.

There’s a fun subplot involving Lesterson’s assistant and the new deputy governor (played by Bernard Archard, who’d later impress in “Pyramids of Mars”). It turns out that the assistant, Janley (played by an Australian actress, Pamela Ann Davy), isn’t just around to pass Lesterson his test tubes and tell him how brilliant she is. She’s dumped another assistant’s dead body into a mercury swamp and told her boss that the fellow is ill! We can guess that their evil scheme is only going to go so far before the Daleks’ plans will crush it, but I like it when the Doctor has more than one mess to handle.

This episode doesn’t have the brilliant cliffhanger that the previous one did to end on a big high note, but our son was attentive and interested all the way through. It’s really well paced; every time the middle-aged men in pajamas threaten to get too dull and grownup, the story brings the pretending-to-be-subservient Dalek back into the action to keep kids focused. This is good stuff.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part two)

WOW! Episode one may have been interesting but slow, but this is downright amazing. As an animation, it’s still creepy and menacing and tense, with a fantastic cliffhanger ending. The original must have been one of the program’s greatest single episodes. Its destruction is a crime against art.

So… what’s up with it being destroyed in the first place? I can’t speak for British viewers of around my age, who grew up never expecting to see old programs like Doctor Who repeated, and probably responded to the news that lots of them didn’t exist anymore with an unsurprised shrug, but the usual response from Americans learning that big chunks of old British TV history just plain got wiped and are missing is one of utter bafflement. Since we grew up understanding that if a favorite show wasn’t being repeated now, it probably would be back again pretty soon, this just flat out did not make sense.

And yet it actually does, given the circumstances: the BBC, unlike American networks, functioned as a creator, distributor, and broadcaster, with a heck of a lot more time to fill each year than ours, who leave most of the daily schedule to their regional / local affiliates and just deliver news and two or three hours of prime time each night, programs made by studios and production houses. British viewers in the 1960s and 1970s expected nothing to be repeated; there was a cultural understanding that the BBC was supposed to produce and screen new programs. Repeats weren’t appreciated.

In large part this was because of an agreement with Equity, the British actors’ union, regarding fees for repeats. Equity’s leaders were understandably concerned but incredibly shortsighted, and envisioned a future where new TV drama simply was not made in favor of repeats, so, in most cases, any production could be repeated exactly once with no charge, but high royalties kicked in after that, and a third screening would end up costing the BBC more than a new show entirely.

So old shows didn’t get seen again at home, and after a few years in the catalog being sold to New Zealand, Nepal, and Nigeria, sales dried up and eventually the BBC found itself sitting on thousands of film reels and tapes, in an era before home video, which weren’t going to be repeated, and which weren’t selling to other countries anymore. It’s a huge shame that old shows got junked, but be practical. They couldn’t predict the future and they had new programs to make.

The BBC junked thousands of hours of material from dozens of series, as well as one-off plays, TV movies, music shows like Top of the Pops, sports, you name it, pretty much everything except the Queen’s coronation was eligible for destruction. The commercial companies followed suit: Southern junked dozens of episodes of Freewheelers, and Thames wiped the first two seasons of Ace of Wands. The Associated British Corporation deleted almost all of the first 26 Avengers episodes. Not a single episode of a “footballers’ wives” soap called United! exists – 147 episodes, gone forever.

Anyway, 130 episodes of Doctor Who – 130 of the first 253 episodes – were lost by the time junking stopped in 1978. In addition, the color versions of about thirty of the 128 Jon Pertwee episodes were unavailable / not of broadcast quality / missing outright when BBC / Lionheart started syndicating his era the “second time around” in the late 1980s – more on that a few months from now – but black and white copies were available.

At the time of writing, all of the lost Pertwee color episodes have been restored to color via a number of neat technical processes, and 40-odd of the missing black and white episodes have been recovered from film collectors or foreign TV stations or, in the case of “The Ice Warriors,” downright weird places. Four of the six “Ice Warriors” episodes were found in a BBC Enterprises building that was being packed up to move in 1988, and which had presumably been checked several times before they turned up a decade after they were noted as lost. (But for a really odd story with the added bonus of The Telephone Game, check out this account of two 1965 episodes showing up in some church or other. Possibly.)

The six parts of “The Power of the Daleks” are among 97 episodes of Who that don’t exist, but audio recordings all of them, thanks to enterprising fans like Graham Strong with good equipment, have survived. 13 of these 97 now exist in cartoon versions, and everybody keeps their fingers crossed that (a) more lost episodes will be recovered, and (b) sales for the animations are good enough to warrant continuing doing these for more stories. So do drop BBC America a line and thank them for ponying up some of the budget for this version. We’d love to see another old story animated next year!

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part one)

Well, that was… interesting.

So, tonight was Daniel’s introduction to Doctor Who and we began with one of the slowest ones. I’d been planning to start him with “The Tomb of the Cybermen” next month, which was his big brother’s first look at the show back in 2002 or so, but then the BBC went and announced this animated reconstruction of a lost serial, the one that introduced Patrick Troughton in the role and was first shown fifty years ago. So we sat down to watch it, and it was interesting and slow. Thankfully, he enjoyed it. I was really worrying whether he would.

I really didn’t know what to expect. “The Power of the Daleks” is one of a handful of black and white serials about which I really don’t know much. I’ve never cared for the telesnap reconstructions or listening to the audios of the missing stories, and nor have I absorbed novelisations or even detailed episode synopses for a few of these stories, so this one, like “The Savages” and “The Space Pirates,” is almost completely unknown to me.

And so what I didn’t know is that the lengthy opening scene really must have relied a lot on the body language of the actors, Troughton, and, playing his two companions Polly and Ben, Anneke Wills and Michael Craze. With silent seconds passing like glaciers and these drawings standing motionless on the screen, it’s very far from exciting.

I think there must have been a decision to have the animators adhere closely to the original camera script. A few years ago, the BBC released a 1964 serial, “The Reign of Terror,” with cartoon versions of the two missing parts of the story. That animation was almost exciting and modern, with lots of cuts and fast editing. I thought that was very interesting, but there was a lot of pushback against it from fandom since it was so unlike the visual pacing of the rest of the story.

It’s a shame because this must have been a thrilling moment of mystery to 1966’s audience. Most of the lore of Who and its changing lead actors came long after this episode. The Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, weren’t named for another three years, the planet Gallifrey and the word “regeneration” came five years after that, and the “I can do this twelve times” limitation was added a full decade after he did it the first time. So this strange moment of a new actor looking around the TARDIS and digging in the toybox was, in 1966, utterly bizarre, but it falls completely flat as animation. This should have been a scene of weird, mysterious magic, and not drawings standing still.

Unsurprisingly, our son was quite restless after about ten minutes of such slow and quiet television, and as we reach the planet Vulcan (no, not that one) and meet a colony full of drawings of middle-aged British actors in pajamas, he wasn’t all that interested. Opening the inner compartment of the capsule and meeting the seemingly dead and dormant Daleks finally got his attention, and he pronounced the show, in the end, “creepy and cool” and he’s looking forward to part two.

He did ask why we couldn’t go ahead and watch the next part tomorrow instead of waiting a week. Well, just as soon as the DVD gets here (it’s released in the UK on Monday), we’ll start watching a day at a time, but for now, we’ll wait for BBC America.

If you’re wondering why the heck this is a cartoon, and what I mean by “lost serial,” stay tuned. I’ll explain why there are missing episodes in next week’s post.

Incoming – Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks

Some great news was announced yesterday, readers. On Monday, November 14, Fathom Events will have a special screening of the six-part Doctor Who serial “The Power of the Daleks.” This is the new, animated version of the story, which the BBC seem to have ditched around 1974. We don’t know yet whether Fathom is bringing it to Chattanooga, but we’ll be there if they do!

If they don’t, that’ll be okay, because for six weeks starting November 19 – straight through to Christmas and the debut of the latest episode of the show – BBC America will be screening the new cartoon and we’ll catch it that way. (We might have to catch about the last half of it at home anyway… nearly three hours in a theater is a whole lot to ask of a five year-old!)

This actually has worked out surprisingly well for us. Doctor Who was actually scheduled to join our rotation in a couple of months anyway, so this will be a really neat introduction to the show for our son. And if you’re wondering why in the world the BBC discarded episodes so that animation has had to be used, Wikipedia‘s got some background you can read. See you in theaters!