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

“Planet of Evil” is definitely in that large segment of Doctor Who that starts strong and peters out. One problem is that the serial’s star is the jungle planet, and it’s largely absent from the second half, with the action set on a very boring and beige spaceship. The other problem, and I do hate picking on an actor, is the character that the unfortunate Prentis Hancock is forced to play. There are military idiots, and then there’s Commander Salamar, who doesn’t even have the decency to be written as losing his grip or even remotely sympathetic. If we felt sorry for a man in over his head, that would be one thing, but Salamar is just an incompetent jerk. Nobody could play the part well. Hancock didn’t have a prayer of making this character work.

Worse, a huge hunk of Salamar’s boneheaded military tough guy act is just there to get himself killed and pad episode four out, because this story just plain runs out of plot. Interestingly, we asked our son in between episodes what he thought, and he actually saw where this was going. There are two anti-matter beings, the big weird one on the jungle planet, and the werewolf creature that Frederick Jaeger’s character is becoming. Our son believed that Jaeger was the more frightening threat, because he was going to turn into a weird video-effects beast: “He’s going to change and be like that creature on the planet!” Thanks to Commander Salamar’s stupidity, he does, giving the story about fourteen more minutes of action.

Our son definitely had fun being frightened by this one. He told us that it was really, really, really scary. “Three scarys?” asked his mother. “No, four,” he replied. “Three isn’t enough!”

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

As we’ve watched the last three stories, I’ve been writing about my own discovery of Doctor Who in 1984, and figuring this thing out without any help. No books, no Wikipedia, no internet, nobody else who knew what it was. “Planet of Evil” featured one of the most amazing-looking monsters that my twelve year-old eyes had ever seen. Months later, the beast broke my heart.

I mentioned that my pal Blake had been stymied from watching Doctor Who by his mother, because it was on too late on Saturday night and they went to church Sunday morning. When she did allow him to watch one, in late April 1984, she immediately changed her mind and sent him to bed when the title of the story came onscreen: “The Robots of Death.” Discouraged, Blake kept living vicariously through me and all of my reports, until he finally found a magazine all about the show.

The previous November, Britain’s Radio Times magazine had published a 20th anniversary special issue. Starlog, a then-popular magazine about sci-fi movies and media, had picked up the special for American distribution, and Blake found a copy in a convenience store that summer. Happily for him, he could show the magazine to his mother, who was persuaded by the photos of odd and/or ridiculous aliens and bug-eyed monsters that this program wasn’t some late-night introduction to Satanism, and allowed him to finally start watching the show.

But on the other hand, it allowed Blake to completely disarm two claims that I made about the show. I’ll come back to the second one when we get about halfway through season fourteen. The first one, though, was my insistence that the anti-matter monster in “Planet of Evil” was the coolest thing anybody had ever seen. The magazine printed a production photo of the creature, for some insane reason, before it got its video treatment:

Blake was perfectly happy to believe me that all of these monsters and beasts and baddies were really cool, especially the Axons and the Cybermen, but he teased me about that bedsheet monster forever. It was a long summer.

(Perhaps worse, he got the magazine a few days before WGTV showed “The Androids of Tara,” which features a very brief appearance by one of the all-time stupid Who monsters, the Taran Wood Beast. He really enjoyed the “episode” [WGTV showed the series as compilation movies], but he kept ragging me about the Wood Beast for weeks as though it was my fault it looked so fake.)

But the other thing that I’m reminded of when watching this story is that it’s the first one that I had seen in the eighties to show the interior of the TARDIS, and reveal that the blue box is bigger on the inside. I honestly don’t recall being surprised by this, oddly.

Anyway, our son spent most of the last hour with his head buried. “Planet of Evil” has a reputation as one of the all-time great scary Who stories. It’s written by Louis Marks and directed by David Maloney. The guest stars include Prentis Hancock and Frederick Jaeger, and Michael Wisher is back again in a small role. The real star, of course, is the jungle planet of Zeta Minor, one of the most successful alien planets ever created in a studio for the BBC. I like this story, but I’ve never loved it. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I just don’t enjoy watching Prentis Hancock at the best of times, and this script has him in the unbelievably thankless role of a military idiot.

We’ll see what he thinks of the ending of this story in a couple of days. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more military idiocy to come, and a lot less weird alien jungles.

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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: Genesis of the Daleks (part six)

There are some good Dalek stories after this one. Some very good ones, in fact. But I really don’t think “Genesis of the Daleks” has been surpassed by any of the Dalek adventures that have come since its 1975 broadcast. And it all comes down to the last seven minutes or so.

Honestly, this last part is a little flabby. The Doctor’s debate about blowing up the incubation chamber and killing all the infant mutants inside is rightly remembered as amazing. It’s good that it takes a minute to address the issue: the Doctor is about to commit genocide. The only Daleks that will survive are the ones in the death squad that’s been recalled. It’s left to these eight or nine to spawn all the Daleks of the future.

Interestingly, this story has sparked all sorts of speculation about what, exactly, the Doctor actually accomplished here. Did he change the future in some way? Did he cause a long enough delay to force the Daleks that we see later in the program to be less scheming and less successful?

On a related note, I really like the retcon that Russell T. Davies introduced, that once the Daleks somehow figure out that the Time Lords screwed with their development, this story becomes the first strike in the Time War of his era. I remain disappointed that something that could have been mythic and almost impossible to imagine, let alone visualize, a cosmos-spanning event that rewrites all of galactic history with every campaign, finally made it to the screen as a bunch of silly men and silly robot-things shooting each other with zap guns, but I think that Davies had the right idea. If the Daleks absolutely had to be the Time Lords’ opponent in the War, then making “Genesis” a preemptive strike is a great idea.

Minus that scene, the first two-thirds of this episode is padding and flab, and then the Daleks make their move and it’s incredible. I love how they don’t talk for a few moments. They just murder Nyder. Then they kill all the extras, after letting Davros know that they do not understand the word “pity.” I love this all mainly because they’ve been obedient little killers, agreeably doing whatever Davros tells them, until they all get together and exterminate everybody. It’s a fabulous climax.

But with it goes the greatness of the old Daleks. The scheming and the quiet manipulation of “Master Plan,” “Power,” “Evil,” even “Planet” really gets replaced from this story on, at least until the Time War. The Daleks that we see in the rest of the classic series just aren’t as effective, in a narrative sense, despite a couple more good stories. And Davros, sadly, doesn’t stay dead, again despite a couple more good appearances when Julian Bleach is in the chair. So I guess the Doctor did accomplish something after all. He made the villains so much less entertaining!

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (part five)

Bit of a low day around the old pad. It was nice to escape into Davros’s escape-proof bunker for a half-hour. You’d think that this wasn’t a particularly thrilling segment for kids, but our son was pretty riveted, wondering what would happen next. At the end, when the Doctor’s being throttled by one of the organic Dalek mutants, he was reminded of the brief animated appearance of the Dalek creatures in “The Power of the Daleks.” Glad to see his memory banks are working at capacity.

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (part four)

Some things our son pays good attention, surprisingly good attention, to… and some things he doesn’t. Tonight, as the first squad of Daleks enters the Thals’ city to avenge the mass murder of the Kaled people, our son wondered whether they would recognize the Doctor. We had to remind him that these are the very first Daleks. They haven’t met any of the Doctors yet. “Oh, yeah…” he said.

But on the other hand, regular readers know that I playfully feign despair over our son’s inability to recognize even the most distinctive actors. Tonight, though, he recognized a voice! When Davros started ranting right before sending this death squad into action, our son said “He sounds like that gold Dalek… the one… their leader.” And later, when Davros has our heroes captured, demanding the Doctor tell him all about the Daleks’ future defeats and failures, he repeated “That is exactly like that gold Dalek!”

He’s referring to the Dalek Supreme, from “Planet of the Daleks,” and he’s right. Michael Wisher, the actor who plays Davros here, did the voice of the Dalek Supreme. Good for him! He was so happy to hear that he was correct that he clapped hands and high-fived his mom. Now let’s see what happens the next time Burgess Meredith turns up somewhere.

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