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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (parts three and four)

I enjoy watching old Doctor Who in a vacuum, with my family not knowing what to expect, like the Doctor regenerating. It makes for some fun surprises. Our son was particularly blindsided, and says that he’ll miss this Doctor.

Me, I say there definitely should have been another way. Peter Davison has never been shy about expressing his frustrations making the show. He loved being the Doctor, but the experience of actually working on this show, particularly in his delay-plagued second season, was too frustrating to continue. Davison said that Patrick Troughton had advised him to not stay for more than three years up front, and I still think Troughton should’ve zipped it. Particularly with the original version of “Resurrection of the Daleks” canceled and the producer’s very disagreeable decision to give Colin Baker one story at the end of this season, Davison was already down eight episodes that he should have been able to make – ten if you count K-9 and Company, which was made with season nineteen’s budget. We should have had more.

I’ll come back to that “disagreeable decision” when we start watching the Sixth Doctor next month, but speaking of “Resurrection,” this is the second story this season where darn near every person in the thing dies. The only ones to make it out in one piece are Peri, the evil Miss (“Krau”) Timmin on the other planet, and that dude in part one who doesn’t have any lines but is seen on his way to blow up the North Core Copper Mines, and he was probably arrested in the sweep of Morgus’s businesses and sentenced to death. Unlike “Resurrection,” all these creeps had it coming. A great character actor named John Normington plays Morgus, and I just love his asides directly to the camera. These are meant to be very theatrical, but it’s almost like Morgus knows that we’re watching him!

Roy Holder, who had been Chas in the third series of Ace of Wands twelve years earlier, is one of the gun runners. I mentioned earlier the fun of watching the show with my family, who don’t know what to expect. Holder’s character is one of two who decide against joining their boss and Morgus in their last, desperate search for more of the rare McGuffin element. They say they have two kilos and that’s more than enough. So Morgus and their boss leave them to it. Marie quietly told our son “I think he made the sensible decision.” I smiled, knowing that “sensible” decision was seconds away from ending his life.

“Caves” is excellent, but it’s also so unpleasant that I can’t believe that Peri would have chosen to stick around had this been her first trip after “Planet of Fire.” Would you? I’d be saying “Take me home immediately” after this – particularly when the guy with whom I agreed to travel about a day previously sat up looking like Colin Baker and got snide with me – unless I’d spent a few weeks with less traumatic events first. So there are several novels and more than a dozen audio adventures with Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant, several of which also feature an additional companion from ancient Egypt called Erimem.

I don’t actually enjoy the audio adventures myself – I think that my problem is that I lack the imagination to see the worlds that they’re describing – but I love that there are so many to choose from for all the fans who enjoy them. The same is true for the next two Doctors, who also had their BBC runs truncated before they should have ended. At least Peter Davison got to end his Doctor’s TV run on a really high note, and got to leave when he was ready to go.

We’ll start watching Colin Baker’s run as Doctor Who in mid-February. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (parts one and two)

Ask a hundred people which is their favorite Peter Davison Doctor Who story. Five will say “Kinda.” I’m one of the five who’ll say “Snakedance.” The other ninety will say it’s this one. Less the stragglers who’ll eventually pop in the comments and protest that it’s something else, of course.

“The Caves of Androzani” really is blisteringly good. It’s the first of two adventures in the eighties that Graeme Harper directed, and wow, did he ever know what he was doing. This looks amazing, and the great music by Roger Limb helps a lot, too. The direction is so good that Harper could have made even a mediocre story into a highlight, but this story isn’t mediocre. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Robert Holmes in five years. Man, was he ever missed.

“Androzani” features some of Holmes’s effortless world-building, but this one’s a little different from the planets and cultures he’d designed in the past. There is no wit, and there aren’t any heroes. We only see the horrible people: an army of brutal military thugs, the corrupt politicians and businessmen bankrolling them, a team of bloodthirsty gun runners, and the criminal who controls the rare substance they all want: spectrox, which can extend or even double the life spans of humanoids. They are all terrible. And they are all going to get what’s coming to them.

A lot of people will tell you that this story is perfect except for a dopey, fake, and honestly quite unnecessary monster in the middle of it. Typically, the monster – it’s called a Magma Beast – is by far our son’s favorite part of it. Since he likes good guys and never villains, there isn’t anybody in this story, other than the Doctor and Peri, for him to cheer on. So the Magma Beast is perfectly placed to keep his interest!

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

You may not believe this, but for me, the most memorable moments in “Planet of Fire” aren’t actually Nicola Bryant’s scenes in her bikini, delightful though those all-too-short scenes are. It’s not even the surprising – and surprisingly sad – farewell to Kamelion, as the robot begs for death and the Doctor obliges him. It’s not even anything to do with the terrific Peter Wyngarde, because he is so amazingly wasted in a role that just about anybody his age could have played.

No, the best part of “Planet of Fire” is the cliffhanger to part three and the great little bitchfest between the Master and Peri. After a third episode that’s even more boring than I remembered, it ends with the terrific surprise that the Master has accidentally shrunk himself and has been controlling Kamelion from a little control room about the size of a shoeshine boy’s box. This shocked our son so much that he fumbled his exclamation, shouting “What the world – wide – world?!” as the credits rolled. In part four, Peri gets a great moment when the Master, having scurried to his ship’s console and hidden inside, continues threatening her and she’s not having it. “You come out here and say that,” she shouts, and we all laughed. The scene honestly isn’t very well staged, but Anthony Ainley and Nicola Bryant sure did play it well.

But there’s another interesting thing about “Planet of Fire,” and that’s the departure of Turlough. All along, he’s felt like the producer and writers had no idea what they wanted to do with this character, and some of what’s revealed here seems very, very contradictory to what they were saying about him just months previously. Turlough was apparently a junior military officer on the losing side of a civil war on the planet Trion. So he’s presumably older than I thought, which makes his apparent “incarceration” in a boarding school even more ridiculous.

This is what they do with military prisoners on Trion: sentence them to go to school on less developed planets, where they will steal cars and pester the unpopular kids, under the watchful eye of a “strange solicitor” in London? Honestly, even knowing already about Turlough’s nonsensical past, it makes even less sense watched cohesively. It’s an early example of what would later exasperate me about The X Files or Lost. If you come up with the story in the first place, instead of inventing something later on to link all the jigsaw pieces together, it stands a much better chance of making sense!

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

Peter Grimwade’s “Planet of Fire” is the third Doctor Who story in a row to elicit just a shrug, but man alive, this one should have been better. There’s location filming in Lanzarote helmed by Fiona Cumming, a great guest star, errrm, the Master and Kamelion but never mind, and the debut of a new companion. It’s Peri, who becomes the first American to travel in the TARDIS.

I won’t hear a bad word about the actress who plays Peri. Her name is Nicola Bryant, and not only is she a perfectly good actress – and Peri gets a few really great scenes in later stories – she’s a fabulous ambassador for Doctor Who. Nobody’s paying her to be a positive force in fandom. This is a show she left thirty-plus years ago, and she’s still singing its praises and welcoming new actors to the family. (Plus, if you like dogs, she’s a great advocate for animal welfare and is always sharing pictures of her family pets on Twitter!)

But because I contradict myself and contain multitudes, I can call myself a fan of Nicola Bryant and also think that casting a British actress while claiming the new character was meant to appeal to the show’s new American audience was an unusual decision. (See the comments for more on that topic.) Peri’s always divided opinions. I bet that for every person I’ve ever met who liked Peri, I’ve met five who just spit nails at the mention of her name. That said, I have always wondered how the character would have gone over had the BBC found a way to get a known American actress, such as, say, Lisa Whelchel, who was Blair on The Facts of Life, to play Peri?

I was keen to get more input from my son into this critical situation, but he had a very long day, was very over-tired, and his initially pleasant surprise that Kamelion was actually present in this story eventually turned sour when the Master turned up as well. He didn’t have an opinion about Peri and I don’t think he paid very much attention to part two of this story at all.

Joining the regular cast in Lanzarote, there are a few fellows in old-fashioned robes, chief among them the great Peter Wyngarde. Unfortunately, Wyngarde is playing another dreary religious lunatic. You don’t suppose all these prophecies about a strange being called Logar are going to have a scientific explanation in the final episode, do you? Stopping Nicola Bryant from being the only woman with a speaking part, Barbara Shelley is here as well, but she doesn’t have very much to do. She’s so irrelevant to the plot that she just gets to appear in the studio material back in London, having missed out on the trip to Lanzarote.

Well, hopefully our son will wake up for part three, and it won’t be as much of a snooze fest as I remember. Fingers crossed!

Photo credit (Lisa Whelchel): https://www.pinterest.com/mercyjacobs/

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