There is an obvious topic to discuss with this pair of episodes, but I don’t want to be obvious. I’ll talk about it next week.
Instead, I’ll note that, since we haven’t watched Flash Gordon yet – but we will – this was our son’s first opportunity to enjoy the splendor that is BRIAN BLESSED hollering at top volume. Between the tentpoles of Sil sniveling and King Yrcanos bellowing, I don’t like anything about this story, but our son enjoyed BLESSED tremendously. He’s a loud kid. Mostly polite and loving, but he sure does forget to use his indoor voice a lot. Now here’s the loudest person he’s ever seen, and nobody’s telling him to stop shouting. He laughed all the way through this, so the weird and unpleasant ending didn’t have the effect that I think the producers wanted with him. Of course, I have been hinting that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the truth.
Naturally, I showed him BRIAN BLESSED doing snooker commentary a few minutes later. I’d watch all sorts of dumb sports on television if BLESSED was doing the play-by-play. Bowling, Texas Hold-em, darts, soccer, you name it.
Well, I said before that Nabil Shaban’s wonderfully disgusting character Sil was the best thing about this story, just like he was in his first story, and I stand by that. But it is worth noting that BRIAN BLESSED is here to yell and bellow and bring the house down as a warrior king, and Christopher Ryan, the second Young Ones star to appear in this show in a two-year period, plays another slimy member of Sil’s species. The story’s a mess, but I like these two. And our son was, momentarily, really impressed by the very ’80s planet that the visual effects team dreamed up, with a dayglo-blue shore and crashing neon pink waves.
Episodes six through eight are the first example of Doctor Who using the format of an unreliable narrator. The Doctor has amnesia after getting his brain blasted in the cliffhanger to part five, allowing the evil Valeyard to screw with the “evidence” of the story and make him look like a coward who’s switched sides to save his own skin. So we never actually get to see what really happened on the planet Thoros Beta… probably. Unfortunately, Eric Saward, the script editor, didn’t make any of this at all clear and was in the process of finding himself a new career. He gave a breathtaking bridge-burner of an “exit interview” to the magazine Starburst, telling his side of a show in turmoil and airing all the dirty laundry he could find, making enemies of everybody at every level of the show’s production. The sad result is that this segment didn’t get the attention it needed before they taped it, so everything is confusing and honestly annoying to follow.
I paused between episodes to explain how we’ve already seen how the Valeyard can edit the material, and that we can’t trust anything that happens onscreen. I did this because I knew our son would absolutely hate seeing the Doctor turn evil and treat Peri so horribly. He did, scowling all the way through part six. Unfortunately, this is going to get worse before it gets better.
This season is flawed in many ways, but one that irks me is that we keep hearing about plots and subplots that are far more interesting than what we actually see. The story of some people from the Andromeda Galaxy stealing secrets from [REDACTED], the greatest information source in recorded history, and being forced into hundreds of years of cryosleep is much, much more interesting than the Doctor’s latest adventure. Though I really do love how the Doctor talks and talks and talks and completely fails to convince the robot to see his point of view, and Sabalom Glitz stumbles in, sizes up the situation, and instantly cons the robot into falling for his scheme.
Our son mainly liked the robot stuff, but he got a great laugh out of Joan Sims yelling at everybody when they can’t decide which way down a corridor to stampede. Older fans, for whom this show is very often such SRS BSNSS, have always hated a tiny bit where a supporting player gets a face full of slime like a contestant on an ’80s Nickelodeon game show. I always figured that was for the kids, but ours was completely indifferent to it.
I have a very odd little memory about “Trial” that I feel like sharing. In the summer of 1986, the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine printed several notes from readers speculating and passing along rumors of the new season. There was one which stood out, and this isn’t an exact quote as I don’t have the issue anymore, but one part of the letter went something like:
I have heard it is to be totally modernised, whatever that means. (Theme music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?)
I’m sure the writer didn’t intend to start a rumor that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was doing the theme music to Doctor Who, but he offered that as an example of what “totally modernised” could mean.
So come August, and I was in a fan club in Atlanta called Terminus TARDIS that met at Emory University’s White Hall and showed old episodes and had a monthly newsletter. And just before the season started, whoever wrote the season 23 preview column ran that example as fact: the new theme music is by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In actuality, it was by Dominic Glynn and I like it a lot more than the previous “starfield” music.
So now we’re in September 1986. Doctor Who was unfortunately back down to 25 minute episodes, and more unfortunately still shot entirely on videotape. Fans have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking season 23 more than any other point in the program’s history and saying what they would’ve done to prove the show’s worth in the face of its postponement and newfound hostility from the higher-ups at the BBC. My simple take, assuming anything was possible: instead of 14 half-hour episodes, seven one-hour episodes, each self-contained, on film.
Certainly instead of being so foolish as to reflect in the narrative that the show was “on trial,” I’d have forged ahead confident that the battle was won and the show had survived. That’s PR 101, but the producer’s instincts were at a pretty low point in 1986, and his script editor was so dispirited that he was just months from a flounce so spectacular that he hasn’t worked in TV since. So we’ve got a script by the amazing Robert Holmes that’s full of lines like “Be silent!” and “You must think me a fool!” among many other issues.
Joining the proceedings in weeks one and two, we’ve got Michael Jayston as a rival Time Lord who’s got it in for the Doctor, along with Tom Chadbon as a guard in an underground city, and Tony Selby as a new recurring character, the “lovable rogue,” it says here, Sabalom Glitz. The most interesting casting choice is Joan Sims, best known for playing daffy old ladies in comedy films, as the leader of a tribe of peasants.
The story was witty enough for our son to enjoy it, and he liked the two big robots a lot. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a much more relaxed and friendly rapport in this story than we’ve previously seen, and there’s a genuinely great scene in part one where the Doctor tries, and fails, to reassure Peri that she shouldn’t be sad to learn that Earth, two million years in the future, has been wiped out, because all planets and stars find an end eventually. I really enjoy that moment. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts well for me and runs out of steam pretty quickly. The problem is that unlike a lot of Doctor Who, this continues running out of steam a lot longer than it usually does.
You know, that hung together better than I remembered it. Alexei Sayle’s still the best thing about it, and it would have been a whole lot more wonderful with more of him blowing up Daleks with his concentrated beam of rock and roll, but I think it gelled for me a bit more this time, for some reason. Sayle’s sonic cannon was, of course, our son’s favorite part of the story. His eyes lit up and he had the biggest smile you can imagine on his face when that first Dalek exploded.
Actually, one reason I enjoyed this more than I have previously is that I used to really, really loathe a character played by Jenny Tomasin, and thought the actress did a rotten job. I was wrong. Her character is a really tough one for an actor to play; she’s meant to be much more pathetic than endearing, and foolishly duped by everybody around her. But apart from one snickeringly bad line reading in part one when she bellows “Find the intruders!” I think Tomasin played this role extremely well, which can’t have been easy when you’ve got an amazing actor like Clive Swift literally brushing you aside. I may have mentioned before that my time talking with and observing the actors at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta gave me a newfound understanding of what actors have to do to make their characters work at all. I’m always glad of the opportunity to reconsider the opinions I held when I was even more stupid than I am now.
But right behind Sayle, there’s William Gaunt underplaying his role of a disgraced assassin from a noble order, and Eleanor Bron, who’s magical in anything. I love how Gaunt’s character acts like he is in complete control of the situation in Davros’s lab, and responds to any obstacle without taking an extra breath, just communicating with his eyes and piercing stares. And Colin Baker and Terry Molloy get one of the better Doctor-Davros arguments – easily the first good one since “Genesis,” honestly – as they debate Davros’s latest sick scheme.
We won’t wait fifteen months until starting the next season of Doctor Who like us poor folk had to do in the eighties… in fact, we’ll be back for more adventures in time and space in about eleven days. But first, something else, like the other two shows that we’re watching, that I’ve never seen before… stay tuned!
I’ve never really enjoyed “Revelation of the Daleks,” which brings this disappointing season to an end, but I do enjoy just how weird it is. I mean, this is an extraordinarily weird 45 minutes. It barely has the Doctor or the Daleks in it. It’s mainly a bunch of Eric Saward characters alternately yelling at each other or mumbling underneath the incidental music, having their own adventure that doesn’t concern the Doctor at all. Parts of the story are sort of narrated by the wonderful comedian Alexei Sayle, playing an oddball DJ piping music and long-distance dedications to a city full of stiffs in suspended animation. I could have done with a whole lot more Alexei Sayle and a whole lot less of desperate double-acts arguing with each other.
Sayle’s role prompted me to pause, because it occurred to me that once again our son has no frame of reference for something I took for granted. We never listen to radio, so the world of Wolfman Jack or Casey Kasem is another planet he’s never heard of. They still have DJs on some stations, I think, but I’m at work when the local NPR / college radio hybrid gets to play music – Chattanooga is woefully short a WUOG or WSBF or WREK – so he doesn’t even get to hear college kids, never mind celebrities.
And of course, he didn’t recognize William Gaunt from The Champions as an assassin called Orcini. Say what you will about this weird story, it’s got a terrific cast that also includes Eleanor Bron and Clive Swift, who underplays the role of the funeral director amazingly well and is so entertaining. Terry Molloy is back as Davros, making him the first actor to play the role twice, and the story is directed by Graeme Harper, who had made the previous year’s “Caves of Androzani” look so good. He can’t save this one, but he fills it full of moments that are at least interesting. Next time, the Doctor will actually have something to do and I recall it becomes considerably more ordinary.
“Timelash” is notorious for a very long bit of padding in the second episode. It was underrunning by about six minutes, so Eric Saward had to step in and write this really long interlude where the Doctor is trying to save the day, but Herbert, a stowaway from 1885, keeps interrupting him. Grown-up fans have always complained about the story stopping in its tracks for comedy, but never mind its bad reputation, because our son loved it. It’s just six minutes of the Doctor being incredibly bad tempered and growling. When Herbert reveals himself, the kid roared with laughter, knowing the Doctor would be furious. He enjoyed the whole adventure, but that scene was his favorite, so I guess that Saward knew what he was doing.
The story overall would probably never have been very good – this was clearly the season cheapie, with all the money spent jaunting to Spain for “The Two Doctors” – but it still strikes me as a massive missed opportunity. At its core, the plot is an interesting change from another story of vengeful psychopaths, and it’s one of the very first times that the show successfully used what would later be called “timey-wimey” stuff to advance the story. But it all sinks under a bunch of characters who might as well be named “Captain Exposition,” disinterested direction, and some really terrible guest performances, with Paul Darrow going for some award as the biggest ham on television that month.
We’re not out of the swamp yet, but it would be about 21 years before Doctor Who bored and annoyed me as much as this one. Things are about to get better.
Because he’s only seven and not yet jaded, our son rarely has a negative comment about a bad visual effect or a dated bit of production, but while he enjoyed some of this story a great deal – mainly whenever the Doctor was bellowing – he rolled his eyes at the prop of the Timelash. This is the oddball name for the entrance to a time corridor. It’s a tall wooden box full of Christmas tinsel. He said, “They could have done a better job with the Timelash. It looked like a photo booth full of black glitter glue.”
Eighties Who is full of anagrams. “Foamasi” is Mafiosa. “James Stoker” is Master’s joke. “Androgum” is gourmand. And “Timelash” is lame, this.
“This” is also an anagram.
Other than his usual dislike of seeing his heroes getting captured, our son really enjoyed this runaround. Of course, I did as well, with the story’s only flaw being the unbelievably pedestrian and thoughtless direction by Peter Moffatt. It’s not just that he failed to rein in some of John Stratton’s excesses and let him shout at the rafters for comedy, but he even brought along that flaw that kept happening in “The Five Doctors” where characters don’t respond to information that is clearly in their sight line. I love the script and the humor and having the villains turn on each other so malevolently, but another director could have made this story a masterpiece.
But the general feeling in 1985 was that masterpieces were all in Doctor Who‘s past. It was during the three weeks that this story was broadcast that the newspapers got wind of a story that Doctor Who was finally being “axed in a BBC plot.” It really was the right decision at entirely the wrong time. In early 1985, Doctor Who‘s American audience was really growing and most of the country’s PBS stations were picking up the show. With sweet merchandising money coming in from the USA for the first time, there was a really good opportunity to push and grow the program here, but the higher muckity-mucks at the BBC have never understood what to do with a good opportunity, ever.
Richard Marson’s biography of the show’s producer, Totally Tasteless: The Life of John Nathan-Turner, is out of print and only being offered for insane sums right now, but it’s a captivating and incredibly detailed look at the chaos and crisis when Who was cancelled, and then un-cancelled and postponed for nine months instead. These days, we’re so used to the BBC’s inability to put a show on the air for thirteen weeks a year that we just shrug at it, but the delay of season twenty-three from January to September 1986 felt like the end of the world at the time. I honestly felt like somebody had lied to me. I’d been sold this amazing, indestructible program that had gone on and would continue to go on for years, and within four weeks of that great moment where I could read and marvel at what was to come, I was reading that the show was being “rested.”
Then everybody in Britain who tuned into the Doctor’s next adventure, “Timelash,” wondered why this dumb show hadn’t been axed in a BBC plot years ago.
The great news to report is that our son is loving this one. Between the Sixth Doctor being arrogant and rude and the Second Doctor doing his “Oh my giddy aunt”s and yelling at the Sontarans, he’d be having a ball already, but Shockeye’s constant talk of food just seals the deal. “They’re talking so much about food that it’s making me hungry!” he said, and I’d forgotten the incredibly funny moment where Shockeye asks Dastari whether he’d ever eaten Sontaran flesh before. “Certainly not,” Dastari says, baffled that even an Androgum would consider anything so weird. This remains my favorite Colin Baker story by a thousand miles, although there are a few very good moments in “Revelation” as well.
When Russell T. Davies steered Doctor Who back to television, he was very careful about using old villains. He brought back the Daleks in series one, the Cybermen in series two, the Master in series three, and the Sontarans in series four. Colin Baker got to battle ’em all in a single season, and we didn’t think that was odd at the time. I remember reading about this season in the pages of Marvel’s American-sized comic book, which reprinted all the Fourth Doctor strips, and most of the Fifth Doctor ones, from the pages of the British magazine, colorized, resized, and with new covers by Dave Gibbons. The comic ran for 23 issues and had a news column which kept us appraised of what was airing in the UK and this sounded like the most exciting run of stories ever, because when you’re fourteen, recurring villains are the most important ones.
I then started buying the British magazine, which showed up here nine or ten weeks late – this would have been around issue 102, I suppose – and falling in love with the original black and white comic. More on that in a post next week. It was a really exciting few weeks to be a fan. The Starlog reprint of the Radio Times 20th Anniversary magazine gave us all the details of the original stories, the Marvel comic was giving us news about this amazing run of promising new adventures with this new Doctor (which Atlanta wouldn’t see for a good while yet), I’d found Pinnacle Books’ reprints of ten of the Target novelizations, and I actually had several friends who started watching the show with me. In time, I’d actually see these stories and be mostly really disappointed with them, but for those few weeks in 1985, the program seemed like it was at the top of its game and completely indestructible.
And then I’d buy the next issue of that Marvel comic.