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Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts three and four)

The one thing that I don’t like about “The Robots of Death” is that the plot required David Collings’ character, Poul, to completely flip out and become practically catatonic when he learns that these robots have indeed been programmed against their first law and can kill. The character suffers from robophobia, which many people in this future society battle against, because robots don’t have body language and people get uneasy around them. This is a really interesting detail that makes this society feel more alive than a typical Doctor Who society, but sidelining Poul masks the fun that we could have had with him and his robot partner. They are detectives, a tip of the hat to Isaac Asimov’s characters Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw.

Even more fun, David Collings had played Olivaw when one of the novels that featured the duo, The Naked Sun, was adapted for a 1969 episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown. Sadly, the episode was destroyed, but there’s a partial reconstruction with stills on the BFI’s Unknown DVD set. I think it’s delightful that Collings played the robot character in 1969 and, eight years later, got to play the human half of a very similar team on Doctor Who. Except Lije Bailey never suffered from any foolishness like robophobia!

The robot detective in this story is D84, and he’s wonderful, taking everything literally and deducting with solid logic in his quiet singsong voice. The writer, Chris Boucher, gave him all of the best dialogue. I was reading about the spinoff audio plays that were made in the continuity of this story and Boucher’s novel sequel Corpse Marker. They’re called Kaldor City and also tie in to the TV series Blake’s 7. Collings got to play his character Poul in some of these. I’d like to think that Poul got over his robophobia and he and a rebuilt D84 had a successful career in Kaldor busting heads and solving crimes.

Our son took a little while to come around to this one. He was more bothered by the robots than many other Who enemies, not so much frightened as aggravated on our heroes’ behalf that they were not behaving according to their programming! He was unclear that the villain was actually a human disguised as a robot. He liked the climax, in which the silver robot SV7 turns on him, but the conclusion was so fast-paced that I’m not surprised that some of the details eluded him. Still, it’s a great story, and like I said last time, one of my favorites from the era.

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Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts one and two)

“The Robots of Death” is a badly named but otherwise fantastic story from 1977. It’s one of my favorites from the Tom Baker years. It’s written by Chris Boucher and was the final Who serial to be directed by Michael E. Briant. The great guest cast includes David Collings, Russell Hunter, and Pamela Salem. I absolutely love it. It perfectly places an Agatha Christie plot in an Isaac Asimov world, with tips of the hat to Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson along the way, and then designs the costumes and rooms of this huge, moving mine with a lush jazz age sheen. Our suspects and victims are all idle rich, with fancy clothes and gaudy makeup, and the robots who do the work are built to be more beautiful than functional.

Our son is being incredibly observant but his deduction skills need a little tuning. He didn’t see what we were meant to infer from the over-the-top headdresses and lush common rooms of the mine, but he did catch that there are three color schemes for the robots: black, silver, and emerald. The second episode explains that the black robots are mute D-class and the lone silver robot is the controlling SV-class, but it also gives us a black robot who talks a great deal to Leela when none of the crew is present to hear his voice. Wonder what’s up with that?

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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (part four)

In a very nice turn of events, our son completely loved the final episode of this story. He was especially impressed with the destruction of the Cybermen’s ship. Afterward, he told us “that’s the biggest bang I ever saw in the whole history of Doctor Who!” He loved that so much that – for now – he’s actually claiming this is his very favorite story that he’s seen. Come on, nobody thinks that!

Although, honestly, it’s better than I remembered. It has a good script, and I love how David Collings plays Vorus at maximum volume, absolutely furious in every scene he’s in. It’s still flawed in the execution in a few places, of course. There’s a particularly weird – and phony, but mainly weird – special effect when they nearly crash into the planet, and if I’ve been picking on MacGyver for all it’s repurposed film footage, then the use of an Apollo rocket launch to substitute for the Vogans’ missile can’t go without comment. The same blasted clip gets reused the following season. They might have picked film of a rocket that didn’t say “United States” on the side.

I’m particularly disappointed in the Cybermen’s leader. It’s not just that they all sound much more like humans talking through a funny voice-changer when they speak instead of the computerized buzz of the sixties Cybermen, it’s that their leader acts like a human. Maybe Robert Holmes meant to explain that the leader actually still has some emotions in him and ran out of space and time, but the other Cybermen speak simply and logically, and the leader speaks like a cartoon supervillain, and uses words like “excellent” when he hears good news, keeps his hands on his hips, and finds a thesaurus of extra verbs to describe how Voga will be destroyed, vaporized, etc. The dude needed about a quarter as many lines as he has.

Producer Philip Hinchcliffe would only do one more story with a returning villain, and the next producer, Graham Williams, would only bring back two across three years. With the show looking forward more than it had in a long time, there wasn’t room in the series for the Cybermen, and they wouldn’t be seen again for seven years. Unfortunately, this story seems to have served as the template for their appearances in the 1980s, with Cyberleaders emoting too much and saying “excellent,” and everybody worried about gold.

One final note: “Revenge of the Cybermen” was the first story that the BBC issued on home video, in an insanely overpriced 50-minute compilation. Well, everything on VHS was insanely overpriced, but £39.95 for a tape with half the story edited out really was ridiculous. With that in mind, the DVD is the perfect place for a completely wonderful documentary feature called “Cheques, Lies and Videotape,” which looks at the world of bootleg and pirate Doctor Who tape trading in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the wild lengths that fans in the UK had to go to collect episodes of the series.

Of course, at the time of writing, the Region 1 DVD of “Revenge” is out of print and Amazon wants $123 for a copy, so some things never change. It’s still better than the £300 one of the fans in the documentary paid for a washed-out nth generation copy of “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” though!

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to watch something else, but stay tuned! Season thirteen begins next month!

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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (part three)

Our son is very, very clear that he doesn’t enjoy this story at all. We recapped the adventures in season twelve tonight, and he’s found something to like about every one of them, especially “Robot” and “Genesis.” Sadly, in a sign of future smart-aleckness to come, the thing that he liked most about “The Sontaran Experiment” was that it was only two episodes long, ba-dum-tish.

“Revenge,” however, is very scary for him. This is another case where the villains absolutely have the upper hand. He doesn’t like how they’ve been physically violent toward the Doctor, and he doesn’t like how powerless everyone seems to be. He did enjoy the very good gunfight between the Cybermen and one faction of Vogans, but he absolutely hated the cliffhanger, where a rockfall kills Jeremy Wilkin’s character and knocks the Doctor unconscious. The episode ends with Harry, who isn’t aware that the Doctor’s got explosives strapped to him, trying to unlatch a buckle that will blow up and kill them all. No, our kid can’t wait for this nightmare to be over.

But I love how well he’s paying attention! We know that his mind wanders during talky bits, but this time, as the Cybermen explain that they want to destroy Voga because “glitter guns” that used the planet’s gold routed them during their last military campaign, he was watching closely. Later on, as the Vogans get mowed down, he asked why they don’t use glitter guns. That’s a pretty good question, really.

Speaking of the Vogans, this serial is just packed with recognizable actors, which kind of makes it a shame that some of them are completely unrecognizable under those strange latex masks! The two lead Vogans, one of whom has worked a deal with the human traitor to lead the Cybermen into a trap, are played by Kevin Stoney and David Collings. Another is played by Michael Wisher. He’d been in the previous story as Davros and would be back two stories later without a latex mask. Wisher may be the only actor in Who to play three different speaking parts across four stories. And of course, among the humans, you’ve got William Marlowe, who we saw in “The Mind of Evil,” and Ronald Leigh-Hunt, who had been Col. Buchan in Freewheelers. Jeremy Wilkin, who passed away in December, had a tiny part in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and was the second voice of Virgil Tracy in Thunderbirds.

But the real surprise is that the music for this story is by Carey Blyton, the fellow who tried so hard to undermine and ruin the drama of “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and “Death to the Daleks” with his inappropriate horns and kazoos… and it’s not bad at all. It’s never intrusive and never undercuts the tension. It’s at least as good as the usual job by Dudley Simpson. So while it’s a shame that our son isn’t enjoying this story, I certainly am.

Then again, I also know that part four’s going to let us down somewhat. I think he’ll enjoy some of the visuals of the climax more than the adults on the sofa will!

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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (parts one and two)

Today’s post is one of more than a dozen in the Classic TV Villain Blogathon, and so with that in mind and several million new readers joining us, I should explain that here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, my son and I watch popular, family-friendly adventure programs together. We’re usually joined by my wife and we enjoy looking at TV through the eyes of our favorite six year-old critic – when he’s not hiding behind the sofa or has his security blanket, “Bict,” in front of his face anyway – and sharing the experience with all you good readers. Our posts here tend to be on the short side, unless I’m in a long-winded and/or analytical mood and I feel like diving into the continuity or production of old programs, recognizing favorite character actors, or, like this one, digging up anecdotes from my youth and the first time I encountered a particular episode of a show.

But we’re meant to be talking about the Cybermen today. At this point in our viewing of Doctor Who, we’re in April 1975, at the end of season twelve, and the Cybermen are making their first appearance in the show for almost five and a half years. They’re yesterday’s news, basically, and this very flawed but interesting serial treats them that way.

The Cybermen were created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis in 1966. Pedler was very concerned about artificial organs, and how humans may lose their humanity through replacement parts. This was a very sixties worry, and the Cybermen, originally, were very sixties villains. We’ve noticed several examples here of how many TV writers in that decade, particularly in the UK, seemed to work out their technophobia issues in their scripts. In The Avengers, the Cybernauts could be programmed to murder any business rival, regardless of what any of Asimov’s laws of robotics suggested. In the Who serial “The Ice Warriors,” humans in the future rely on a computer which puts all of Europe in danger. And while we’re not going to blog about The Prisoner, which everybody enjoys more than I do, I keep mentioning “The General” in these pages. That’s the one with the supercomputer that’s going to solve every problem and make every decision and destroy free will as we know it, and which Patrick McGoohan destroys just by asking it “Why?”

The Cybermen appeared in five stories over two years, and their principal motivation was to make other organic beings into machine-creatures like them. This was rarely addressed at length or lingered on in the original run of Who. Some of their more recent appearances in the modern series have gone into more grisly detail about what this might mean, but an all-ages show in the 1960s was a lot tamer than one in the present day. We watched 1967’s “The Moonbase” earlier this morning, and there’s an interesting bit where the Cybermen decide against taking the Doctor’s companion, Jamie, along for conversion because he’s injured his head and doesn’t have any value to them.

Their secondary motivation was to eliminate potential threats against them, which is what gets the plot of “The Moonbase” going. In fact, there’s a funny exchange in part three of the story:

HOBSON: You’re supposed to be so advanced, and here you are, taking your revenge like… like children!
CYBERMAN: Revenge? What is that?
HOBSON: A feeling people have–
CYBERMAN: Feeling. Feeling. Yes, we know of this weakness of yours. We are fortunate. We do not possess feelings.

So it’s just typical of television that when the Cybermen showed up for the first – and only – time in the 1970s, it’s in a story called “Revenge of the Cybermen.” I reminded our son of this exchange before telling him the title of tonight’s adventure. He facepalmed.

“Revenge” seems to be set in the early 30th Century, hundreds of years since the Cybermen’s last chronological appearance. But, since this is a show about a time traveler, it gets to skip around, fill in gaps, contradict itself, rewrite history, or just screw up somehow. Sometime in those hundreds of years, there had been some massive Cyber-Wars, which ended very badly for the Cybermen. All that’s left of them are roaming bands of “pathetic tin soldiers skulking around the galaxy,” as we’ll hear in tomorrow’s episode.

The script for this adventure is credited to Gerry Davis, but it was rewritten, massively, by Robert Holmes. Davis’s original story had something to do with a space casino, but Miles & Wood’s relevant volume of their book series About Time is incorrect to say that this should suggest a connection between this and the Robert Urich detective series Vega$. They write that Davis later went to America to “make” the series. It was created by Michael Mann and Davis only wrote two episodes. Anyway, it’s directed by Michael E. Briant, using many of the sets from “The Ark in Space” as a cost-saving measure.

Last week, as we looked at “Genesis of the Daleks,” I explained how I first encountered Doctor Who in 1984 without access to a guidebook or anybody who’d ever even heard of the show. I’d missed “The Ark in Space” and made some assumptions about the series based on these two TV movies, almost all of which were completely wrong. Since the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry are traveling around this season via transmat and time ring, I didn’t see the TARDIS for a while and didn’t know what it was when I did. I thought this set – the Ark / Nerva Beacon – was where our heroes lived. The dialogue in this story explains that they’re currently in the past of Nerva Beacon. So they didn’t build their spaceship, they moved into it later. Got it, I think.

But here’s where I got very confused. Because I was a comic book-obsessed kid, I assumed that every single villain that we met as this show went on were all part of the Doctor’s big rogue’s gallery. And since I’d seen that listing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s TV Week for “The Five Doctors” which called it a 20th anniversary special, I knew there was a lot of continuity and backstory for me to catch up on… I just didn’t know where in the program I was. I reasoned that I must be kind of early on, because Sarah and Harry were played by actors in their twenties or so (I was assuming that Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and Ian Marter had starred in the show for all twenty years), but the Cybermen were old villains. How old, though… that didn’t make sense. The story implies they’ve gone back in time thousands of years to have this adventure, and these Cybermen are clearly on their last legs… if Doctor Who has to keep going back in time thousands of years to fight the Cybermen, they can’t pose that much of a threat to his “present,” and his spaceship home, can they?

Fortunately, our son was nowhere as confused, but he wasn’t all that happy about this adventure either. We started this serial tonight with its first two episodes, and he gave it a thumbs mostly down. The problem is that there are three rival factions ready to gun everybody else down: the Cybermen and two groups of Vogans. He seems to have a point. Even in a series where our heroes are constantly jumping from danger to danger, the Vogans are trigger-happy and don’t feel like sharing plans with any outsider. Their ranks are packed with good actors – more about them next time – but all he sees are a gang of threats with machine guns.

On top of that, one of the human characters is a traitor, and he seems to be working for both the Cybermen and one of the Vogan groups at the same time. Throw in a nasty Cybermat, a metallic snake-slug thing that injects alien poison into your body, and this is just an intense experience for a young viewer. Maybe we’ll clear up some of the questions when we start part three Sunday evening!

This post is part of the Classic TV Villain Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. To read all the fabulous posts in this blogathon, click here.

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (part four)

Well, that was about as bad as I remembered. Like all of the many Doctor Who stories that fumble, this one has a couple of neat concepts in it. This one should feature the remarkably interesting idea of a living city, but because this is just Who by the numbers, the city is just a location for a deeply boring and slow chase with Daleks somewhere behind them. The “Pop Goes the Weasel” / “Three Blind Mice” music emphasizes just how slow and stodgy this is.

It’s never interesting, and never even fails in an entertaining way. I’m reminded of how “The Claws of Axos” looked and felt so shoddy and rushed. This doesn’t have any of that story’s weird editing decisions or poor acting, but it also doesn’t have that story’s sense of doing something weird, new, and unique. “The Claws of Axos” tried to be different. This just tries to be the same Dalek adventure that they did the previous season.

Mercifully, the Dalek adventure in the next season would try to be something entirely different!

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (part three)

As we suffer through this Christmas turkey, we’d like to say thanks for reading, we hope you’re having a great holiday, and I hope you all found several classic films and TV shows under your tree! More to come later!

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (parts one and two)

I’ve always been one of those insufferable list-makers. Five favorite Miles Davis records, all the Bond films best to worst, make one last Beatles LP with tracks from their first couple of solo albums, and, inevitably, the five worst Doctor Who stories. Since the show came back in 2005, three of the five previous residents on that list have been replaced by new turkeys. Two of ’em even dislodged “The Twin Dilemma” as the all-time stinker. If you had told twenty year-old me after they cancelled the show “Don’t worry, it will be back one day and you’ll love it and it’ll become so popular that it will air in the US the same day it’s shown in Britain,” I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had added “And there will be two stories even worse than ‘The Twin Dilemma’,” then I’d have known for sure you were lying.

But two episodes into this rewatch, “Death to the Daleks” remains on the list. It’s dire. It was written by Terry Nation on autopilot, directed without any flair or care at all by Michael E. Briant, and the only interesting acting performance is by John Abineri, who gets killed early in part two. Duncan Lamont, who had a small but memorable role in the film version of Quatermass and the Pit, is the lead guest star, and he looks like he has better things he could be doing.

At least it starts okay. Before the sun comes up on the quarry planet of Exxilon, it’s lit well and looks creepy. But then the sun rises and we meet the boring humans and then the Daleks show up and it gets downright dull, which is Doctor Who‘s worst sin. And it sounds like the end of the world. The music is by Carey Blyton, the same oddball who ruined Doctor Who and the Silurians in 1970 with his kazoos. This time, he’s got the London Saxophone Quartet in tow, and their apparent goal was to deliberately undermine the drama in every single scene with inappropriately whimsical tunes. What could have been a crash-bang wallop cliffhanger to part one is accompanied by something about as threatening as “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

The only interesting thing that happens is the Daleks’ ray guns stop working and so they install some machine guns instead. That’s not the interesting part. What’s cute is that they practice their projectile weapon on a teeny model TARDIS. Why do they have that? Do they load a crate of toy police boxes on every Dalek ship for them to use as stress squeezies? Do the Daleks collect Doctor Who action figures, the same way humans collect trading cards of serial killers and famous criminals? Nothing happens in these two episodes as remotely interesting as wondering why they have that toy!

Our son enjoyed it, happily, with the caveat that the primitive, cave-dwelling Exxilons are much, much creepier than he’d prefer. They are really kind of frightening to him. The Daleks are as exciting as ever, and he’s surprisingly glad that they’ve had to unplug their death rays for machine guns, because the bullets are less scary!

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