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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part one)

So it’s time for the end of another season of Doctor Who, and another big season finale written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts. “The Green Death” was directed by Michael E. Briant and I think it’s thunderously entertaining. I really like this story a lot.

Watching the first part in isolation is a really fun experience. This is clearly a case – and a very rare case in the original run of Doctor Who – of a story built entirely around a companion’s departure. Jo Grant lets the Doctor know in the first episode that she does not want to gallivant off into space to have fun anymore when there’s a planet of her own to save. He knows, then, that their traveling days are over, but he thinks that she’ll still be with UNIT and they’ll work together when he comes back to Earth. And as befits a story built around the companion leaving, Katy Manning dominates this story. It’s all about her character and Katy is fantastic. It’s almost a shame that the very next Doctor Who companion would be so many people’s pick for the all-time best, because she overshadows Jo so much; at this point in the series, Jo is actually tied with Barbara as my favorite companion.

Anyway, this story is set in Llanfairfach, a town in south Wales that is suffering from the closure of its coal mine, and where an outfit called Global Chemicals has set up. Global’s director is a fellow named Stevens, played by the awesome Jerome Willis. He’d later play the disagreeably cautious Peele in The Sandbaggers. And it really, seriously looks like Stevens is under the control of the Cybermen. Honestly, this story looks and feels like a sequel to 1968’s “The Invasion.” It isn’t, but watch the scene where Stevens’ mind starts to wander and he loses track of what he was saying. It’s not quite as obvious an “I’m being controlled” performance as, say, Michael Sheard in part one of “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but something’s up. And then he puts on this futuristic-looking headphone set…!

But as much as I enjoy this story, it does have a couple of problems. One of these, which I may return to, is that the story’s heart is definitely in the right place, but its “pollution BAD alternative energy GOOD” tone is incredibly shrill and would be far less dated if it were a little less right-on. Another is a structural problem that leads me to employ the “unflattering cultural stereotypes” tag on this episode.

Since I’m almost totally unfamiliar with Welsh culture, I didn’t see anything as outlandish as, say, all the Scottish stereotyping in the Avengers episode “Castle De’ath,” but it isn’t really a case of employing cliche, it’s setting a story in Wales but telling a story about Englishmen. Tat Wood penned an essay in About Time entitled “Why Didn’t Plaid Cymru Lynch Barry Letts?,” and I don’t know that I would have noticed the problem until I read that. See, the Welsh characters in this story, even though they’re played by Welsh actors like Talfyrn Thomas, are not in control of their destiny. People from London are. Global Chemicals has moved to Llanfairfach to take advantage of the closed mine, and the hippie commune that opposes Global – about which more next time – is similarly made up of people who’ve dropped out and moved to the area because they share the young Professor Jones’s ideals and dreams.

Between these forces, the Welsh people here have no agency. They’re all unemployed, apart from the milkman and a few part-timers who inspect the mine for safety and, as we’ll see, green slime. And this story isn’t about them, even though they’re the ones who feel the immediate impact of what’s going on, as people start coming out of the mine bright green and dead. It’s about Jo first, and about Global Chemicals versus the Wholeweal Community second. That, along with the script making sure that the milkman says “boyo,” is what makes this a little unflattering.

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part four)

Our son clarified that while he was no longer excited about this story after the betrayal of the bad fight with the ugly pig-faced man, he is “attached” to Doctor Who and wants to see what will happen next. Fortunately, the mad Omega banishes the pig-faced man almost instantly as this episode opens, and he enjoyed this part much, much more.

Honestly, we all grade “The Three Doctors” on a curve because we love the idea of multi-Doctor adventures and we love Patrick Troughton. This isn’t as good as it could be. My biggest aggravation is actor Stephen Thorne’s one-note bellowing, but in his defense, he lets out a seriously painful and agonized howl when he realizes that his body has been completely disintegrated, and that’s my second biggest aggravation: it’s the emotional climax of the story and it takes place six minutes into part four.

The director seems to think the climax is all the guest stars walking up a fairground haunted house’s staircase into a column of smoke one at an endless and tedious time and saying their goodbyes to the Doctors, and it assuredly isn’t. This story badly needed to have one more draft: have the Doctors realize what is wrong without telling Omega, escape for a bit, get everybody home through the smoke column, and then explain to Omega that his body has been destroyed, let the villain give out that wretched and painful howl, and then annihilate the anti-matter universe. I try not to Monday-morning-quarterback old TV too much, but I insist that would have worked better.

So it’s entertaining if not necessarily all that good, and I enjoyed letting our son know that Doctors will occasionally meet each other in the future, and never really get along with each other. It’ll be a couple of years before he sees his next teamup, though!

We’ll be taking a short break from Doctor Who, but we’ll resume our look at the tenth season in early November. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part three)

Our son turned on this story in a big, bad way! Episode three ends with the third Doctor battling a weird, pig-faced man in a black void, the representation of the dark side of their enemy’s will. It doesn’t look like he’s winning this fight; in fact, Jon Pertwee and his stunt double are getting slammed all over the room.

And our son took this as a very, very grim turn of events. He loved the comedy stylings of the Brigadier earlier, bellowing at the Doctor for transporting UNIT headquarters to some “deserted beach,” and sat riveted to the story, but the Doctor losing this fight wasn’t fun. Hopefully he’ll make it out of this mess for the final episode!

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part two)

There are people who really, really don’t like what they see as the deterioration of the Brigadier’s character into a disbelieving comedy stooge, and for them, the middle episodes of this story are the nadir. They’ve got a point – the guy in this story is a pompous military idiot, and the Brig in “Spearhead from Space” isn’t – but most people don’t complain too loudly because Nicholas Courtney is so darn fun in the face of escalating chaos, and because it’s nice to see him teamed up with Patrick Troughton again.

Our son is really enjoying this one, which is nice because the last two were pretty far from his favorites. He says that it’s weird, but weird in a really good way. The cliffhanger sees UNIT’s headquarters zapped away from Earth and into a black hole, which he loved. This will lead to the Brigadier’s line about Cromer next time, which I think is completely hilarious.

Meanwhile, Marie is getting accustomed to classic Who‘s tropes and cliches. The third Doctor and Jo wake up in the strange universe of anti-matter, which is “so strange.” “It’s another quarry,” she grumbled. Yeah, a few more of those are yet to come.

Incidentally, the notion that Time Lords can have different bodies is still not actually written into the text even at this stage. There is nothing onscreen yet to indicate that changing appearance is something that anybody other than the Doctor can do. This also emphatically states that William Hartnell’s character is the “earliest” of the Doctors. Three years later, a different production team will attempt to retcon this and show us eight Doctors prior to Hartnell’s character. It won’t take, but I do love the moxie.

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part one)

“I like the other Doctor, the one we haven’t seen in a while! The one with the dark hair!” Well, our son’s in luck, because this is the tenth anniversary adventure, and the first time that Doctor Who had brought back a previous incarnation, or two, of the hero. I enjoyed myself by not telling him the title, starting the episode midway through the credits, and letting him enjoy the surprise. Since this is one of the most celebrated stories of the series, I wonder whether many people have had the opportunity to see it without knowing that Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell were back in it.

Well, mostly. Conventional wisdom holds that the massive fun of Pertwee and Troughton squabbling patches over several pedestrian moments in a silly story, but the biggest shame is that Hartnell was just far too ill to participate much. He’s limited to some pre-filmed segments at Ealing Studios and played back in the studio, which remains a huge shame.

Anyway, the story is by Bob Baker and Dave Martin and it’s directed by Lennie Mayne, who brings in actor Rex Robinson for a supporting role for the first time. Mayne directed four Who serials and cast Robinson in three of them. He also used Robinson in an episode of The Onedin Line and a couple of installments of Warship. I love seeing how BBC directors in the seventies went back to trusted names.

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part six)

Well, there certainly was a lot that could have been done better in this last half hour, but I enjoyed that a lot. Spending the middle two episodes on what might best be called whimsy means that this story has a heck of a lot to tie up in a hurry. It’s rushed and, when Kronos unconvincingly destroys Atlantis, it really looks and feels like the director just said “that’s good enough,” because they had quite a lot more to tape.

But that scene in the dungeon! Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning are just magical together. It’s a beautiful little scene where the Doctor tells a story about an old hermit who lived on the mountain behind his boyhood home, and it’s just perfect. I love the Doctor becoming a storyteller instead of just dropping goofy anecdotes about Venusians. I love the way he seems to slip and refer to the story as “the first time I heard it,” as though it might not really have happened to him, it’s just an old, old story that’s taken on special meaning as he got older. We’ll never know, and that’s just fine.

Meanwhile, in short attention span theater, we asked our son what his favorite and least favorite parts of the whole adventure were, and they were apparently both in the final part. He loved the Doctor dueling with the minotaur – that’s future Darth Vader Dave Prowse under the mask – and hated the Master briefly becoming king of Atlantis. Overall, he said this story was “kind of a yes,” and I don’t agree. To my considerable surprise, the flaws don’t dampen the hugely entertaining adventure. It’s my favorite story of season nine, and it’s absolutely a yes.

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part four)

Okay, so on the one hand, this can be accused very fairly of being padding padding padding. If you’re wanting your Doctor Who to be lean and mean and tightly plotted, I can see why this story maddens you. There’s literally not one minute of story here that’s essential to the plot of the Master going to Atlantis to get control of Kronos. If that’s the only reason that “The Time Monster” exists, then it could have been a three-parter. I understand that the low-budgeted series, throughout the Pertwee years, mainly adopted its format of two four-parters and three six-parters to make the best out of the resources available, but they honestly could have used three parts from this and one apiece from “The Mutants” and “The Sea Devils” and made an additional five-part adventure this year.

But I’m in the other camp. This is fun. The Doctor is being the stodgy old killjoy and the Master is having a ball. Benton gets turned into a baby, the TARDISes are materialized inside each other, and the Master uses his machine’s telepathic circuits to fiddle with the Doctor’s speech and have the words come out of his mouth backwards. If you’re bothered by the Brigadier turning into the Doctor’s straight man, only there to feed the star lines, he gets to stand in place for about the whole episode, frozen in time, so even he can’t annoy you. How could anybody not like this? It’s so fun.

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part three)

I think I see one reason fandom doesn’t care for this story. Everybody’s waiting for Ingrid Pitt and she isn’t in the first half of the serial! But seriously, there really aren’t six episodes of plot here. I mean, when the characters are specifying that everything you’re seeing are delaying tactics, that’s a bit of a clue.

On the other hand, I’m loving it. It may be stretching a slow four-parter, at best, into six, but it’s all so entertaining! The scene where the Doctor builds some “modern art” for its sort-of crystalline structure to interfere with the Master’s time experiments is padding, but it’s funny. You also read people complaining that the Brigadier is getting increasingly stupid as the series goes on, but our son guffawed at the Doctor and Jo roaring past his jeep in the super-speed-boosted Bessie. This may not be essential, but it’s fun.

And so the cliffhanger sees Captain Yates, bringing the TARDIS to Cambridge in a military convoy, plagued by more delays as the Master dumps various foes from other times into 1973 via his interstitial time machine. It ends with a massive explosion as a thirty year-old Doodlebug flying bomb comes down in the tree line. That’s a hugely effective cliffhanger; our son was very worried for Captain Yates!

Also, our son was quite frightened by that most ridiculous of Doctor Who monsters: Kronos finally makes its weird appearance, all white costume and colorful visual effects sparkling off the vision mixer, the actor’s arms flapping like an angry canary while swaying in the lab on a kirby wire. No, nothing about Kronos is really successful at all… unless you’re six, in which case this furious caged beast who absorbs Dr. Percival in a puff of nothing really is a surprisingly weird and troubling enemy.

Speaking of Dr. Percival, I’d mentioned that John Wyse would later appear in the BBC’s Dorothy L. Sayers adaptations of the 1970s. He was joined last time by Donald Eccles, playing the Atlantean high priest who the Master zaps into the present. Eccles would also have a big supporting role in one of those Sayers serials. He played the Reverend Venables, the campanology-obsessed vicar in The Nine Tailors, a couple of years after this.

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