Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts five and six)

It’s kind of the nature of action-adventure television that the hero needs to have a really good challenge in each story, against villains as resourceful as the protagonist. So in a weird way, it’s kind of refreshing to see the Doctor pitted against some adversaries who are way, way out of their league. The Chameleons did not think this thing through. The Doctor’s able to exploit a massive, massive flaw in their science and technology, and hold all but two of them hostage because these bad guys’ tech is flatly not up to the challenge of interstellar invasion. A more polished script would show these villains as desperate and pitiful rather than malevolent. It’s a missed opportunity, but I did enjoy the tables turning in parts five and six.

In fact, “The Faceless Ones” belongs to a very rare group of original Who stories – “Mawdryn Undead” and “Time and the Rani” are others – that end much more satisfactorily than they began. It’s still very unhurried, but the end of this adventure sees all the humans acting decisively and intelligently, and I like the way the Chameleons know when the jig is up. The fellow that they capture spills the beans on the operation with very little pressure, and Donald Pickering’s character, who’s been playing his main villain part as a posh airline pilot calmly ordering his subordinates around, is intelligent enough to see this is not going to end well for him, and immediately begins negotiating. It’s a shame part six is missing; Pickering and Patrick Troughton have a very interesting face-off toward the end. The animation’s as good as we can hope for, but I’d love to see those actors playing that scene.

Incidentally, while I wish that I could be only positive about the animation, I do think they missed a huge opportunity. When all two dozen of the humans who are connected to their duplicates are located, I’d love to have seen an overhead shot, from an angle much higher than the original director could actually have managed, of all twenty-five bodies laid out in the parking lot. I wish the camera moved around more in general. Why limit themselves to just what the BBC could have done in 1967?

“The Faceless Ones” is a little infamous because of the poor way that they wrote out the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly. The producer at the time didn’t want to continue with the actors Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, so they only appear in parts one, two, and six, and only on location in the last episode, so the BBC could dispense with them as quickly as possible. The story is set literally the day after the previous season’s “The War Machines,” which means that Ben and Polly could pick back up with their old lives as though they’d never been away. It also means that WOTAN, the Chameleons, and the Daleks in the next story were all operating in London in the third week of July, 1966. The World Cup was happening in London at the same time, and Gemini X returned to Earth. Wish I could read a Who-universe newspaper from that week. The Swinging Sixties, man.

We’ll return to the David Tennant days of Doctor Who in May. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts three and four)

Some of the animation in this reconstruction is really quite nice. The team does a really terrific job with airplanes, and so while I’m not completely sold on the movement of figures, I could watch what they do with jets for forty-five minutes without complaint. I do think the production as a whole is limited by the glacial pacing of the original story, and not helped by the lack of music. Black-and-white Doctor Who was occasionally like that; when they overspent in one area, like a day or two on location at Gatwick Airport, they had to cut back in another.

Our son’s enjoying it more than I am, honestly, but that’s by no means a fault with the current presentation, which is definitely a case of the best they can do with what they had to work with. I enjoyed seeing a little modern day Easter egg thrown in: the newspapers have headline stories that a menace that the first Doctor had battled the year before, the War Machines, had been defeated. That’s actually going to be an important plot point in part six. Heck, the original production crew should have dropped those newspapers in when they made this in 1967. That’d be some great foreshadowing! Otherwise, the mandate to be as accurate a presentation of the original production kind of keeps them hamstrung. There’s a bit where the RAF sends a fighter to follow the Chameleon Tours’ jet. As I say, it looks great, but if we suddenly had some Thunderbirds music as the fighter spirals out of control, it’d be even better.

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts one and two)

The latest animated reconstruction of a lost Doctor Who story is 1967’s “The Faceless Ones,” although in this case the original production wasn’t completely destroyed. Episodes one and three of the serial, written by Malcolm Hulke and David Ellis, were mostly recovered – part three is missing several dozen frames toward the end – and now with animation, we can enjoy the whole thing in this very comprehensive set. It contains the original episodes, telesnap reconstructions of the four missing parts, and both black and white and color animations of all six. It was released in the UK last month; a region one edition is available for pre-order but it has not been scheduled.

“The Faceless Ones” feels kind of long at six parts. It would probably feel long at four. It’s one of those stories where the Doctor and his companions, Jamie, Ben and Polly, make a dumb decision to hide and scatter in a secure area, find something unpleasant, and have to spend an eternity getting people to listen and believe them. It’s Gatwick Airport, 1966, and Polly sees a man murdered by an alien weapon. Meanwhile, the police are becoming suspicious about reports of young people going missing on budget tours to Europe operated by a strange company called Chameleon Tours.

There’s a fine guest cast in the adventure, at least. There’s Bernard Kay as a detective, and Pauline Collins as a furious girl from Liverpool who’s looking for her missing brother. Donald Pickering and Wanda Ventham, who, in a really weird coincidence, both appeared again in a Who serial twenty years later, also have key parts. But the story feels long and is driven by foolish choices, and suffers from that tedious trope where our heroes go find somebody in authority to report a dead body, only to have the body not be there when they return. We’ve all seen that one too many times.

The kid wasn’t especially taken with it either. We watched the original part one and the black and white animation for part two, and his favorite moment was the creepy reveal of a hideous alien. They totally blew part one’s cliffhanger, by the way. The big reveal is the back of the alien’s head. I don’t know what they were thinking; the creature definitely should have turned to look at the camera and given the audience a big shock moment. But that’s this serial all over. It’s very pedestrian and slow, even by the standards of Who at the time. The kid asked to switch to the second DVD and watch the remainder of the story in color, which we’ll do tomorrow night. Hopefully it picks up!

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (parts three and four)

As I mentioned last time, I’ve kept “The Macra Terror” on the shelf for decades, never reading the novelisation or watching a telesnap reconstruction or listening to the BBC’s cassette release. I have, of course, wondered how in the world the production team could have managed a story about giant crabs with the meager resources afforded to them, and when the “Lost in Time” collection of orphaned episodes and clips was released fifteen-odd years ago, the clips suggested “not all that believably.”

In point of fact, for the eight year-old in this audience, “The Macra Terror” moved from being a behind-the-sofa nightmare of a cartoon into a laughing stock when we switched over to disk two to see the surviving footage. There are a few seconds of fragments from a home camera recording of some random moments along with some screams and shocks that the censors in Australia deemed too horrifying for audiences. The cartoon Macra is a swiftly-moving horror, but the real thing was a mostly stationary prop, kept to the shadows with arms and claws waving at the actors. While we would all prefer to have the original, at least the animation doesn’t result in the kids at home guffawing over the production.

In other words, dear Australia: thank you for censoring the story and keeping what you cut in an archive, but I promise, it really, really wasn’t necessary.

Anyway, I’m very glad this story was animated. The DVD package – and there’s an even more packed Blu-ray – contains the story in both black and white and color, along with commentary featuring the serial’s original director, actor Frazer Hines, and three of the guest cast. It’s got telesnap reconstructions of the episodes, the audiotape version that was released in 1992, and the fragments of original footage along with lots of other bonus material. I thought the story was kind of slow and lacked urgency, but the animation was fine and I’m very impressed with the presentation. I hope they have a new cartoon reconstruction in the works for 2020.

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (parts one and two)

“So what’s scarier,” Marie asked our son, “the monsters, or the colony telling everyone that there are no monsters?”

“BOTH,” he shouted.

“The Macra Terror” was a four-part Doctor Who adventure that the BBC showed once, in 1967, sold to a few other countries, and then destroyed. All that’s left is the soundtrack, some photographs, and a few fragments that the Australian Broadcasting Company censored from their copy and left in an archive to be discovered decades later. From that, they’ve built a new animated presentation. It’s not coming out in North America until October for some stupid reason. Why anyone should have to wait in this day and age, I’ve no idea. I’ve had my Region 2 DVD on the shelf for a couple of weeks now.

This has been one of the Who adventures that I’ve deliberately never learned anything about, saving it for tonight’s rainy day. It was originally shown in season four, as Patrick Troughton’s fifth story as the Doctor, with Peter Jeffrey as the “pilot” of a mining colony several centuries in the future. Everybody in the colony works hard and sings happy songs during their down time, because they’re all being subliminally programmed while they sleep to obey orders, don’t question anything, and certainly don’t say anything about gigantic crab monsters that creep around the colony at night. Ben, one of the Doctor’s companions, gets taken in by the overnight hypnosis and soon he’s parroting the official position that “there are no such thing as Macra!”

It may be a new cartoon from a 52 year-old show, but it’s still got the power to thrill and get under audience’s skin. Doctor Who hasn’t frightened our son this much in several months. This was a behind the sofa with the security blanket experience, that left him wide-eyed and very worried for Polly. “This was SUPER SCARY,” he protested.

Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (part three)

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.

Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (part two)

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.

Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (part one)

I had fun presenting tonight’s story to our son. I cued it up partway through the credits, pausing on “By Robert Holmes.” That way, he was very surprised to see the show begin in black and white and with an older Doctor at the TARDIS console.

So, a couple of huge points about “The Two Doctors.” First, obviously, it features the return of Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines as the second Doctor and Jamie, but they’re not quite the same as when we last saw them traveling together sixteen years ago. They’re visibly older – Hines was in his early forties when this was made – they’re on a mission for the Time Lords, of whom Jamie had never heard until his final appearance (“The War Games”), and they mention that Victoria, who had left the duo about a year prior to Jamie’s final appearance, is not with them on this mission because they dropped her off somewhere to study graphology.

So this doesn’t actually fit into the show’s established continuity very neatly at all. Nor does that one bit in “The Five Doctors” where we learn the second Doctor came from a point in time after the events of his and Jamie’s final story. So all of this sparked a terrific fan theory called “season 6B,” which Terrance Dicks, who wrote both “The War Games” and “The Five Doctors,” and script edited the show for the period before and after “Games,” later confirmed in a novel for the BBC called Players. Immediately after the Doctor went tumbling into a void at the end of “The War Games,” some other Time Lords interrupted things and told our hero that before his exile would begin, they would be requiring his services for some very discreet and very sensitive situations where the Time Lords could not act openly. The Doctor would be available to step in and do their dirty work for them, maintaining some plausible deniability.

So in Players, the Doctor has a solo mission for his new superiors, and it ends with him saying that he works better with an assistant and would like them to pick up Jamie and restore his memory. From there the pair work together for several years and reunite with Victoria at some point, and then have this adventure, crossing paths with the sixth Doctor and Peri.

I’ve always thought this was a blindingly fun retcon. It’s pear-shaped and not the smoothest one you could invent, but since it was beaten into shape by Terrance Dicks himself in a novel for the BBC, it’s as close to authority as it can be. But more about this in the comments, because I spend a lot of words on it.

The second huge point is that this introduces a character who Teenage Me thought was just about the greatest and most fun character in all of fiction: Shockeye o’the Qwancing Grig. (Teenage Me was prone to hyperbole.)

Shockeye is an Androgum, which is a very strong humanoid that lives on base instincts, shouldn’t have the capacity for intellectual reasoning, absolutely loves food, and has really been looking forward to eating a human for the first time. He’s played by John Stratton and he gets all the best dialogue. “Religion? I am not interested in the beliefs of primitives, only in what they taste like,” he bellows at one point, which isn’t the best line delivery ever, in retrospect, but I sure did love it in high school. I also overquoted one of the Sontarans in the story as often as possible, snapping “I do not take orders from civilians” whenever I could.

We had this semester-long creative writing exercise when I was in the tenth grade and had to keep using the same characters in our own stories, and use the characters that other people in our team had created. I just cheated and stole Shockeye for mine and didn’t tell anybody. I remember everybody else’s take on my version of Shockeye being very amusing. I was also friends with a fellow at another school and played GURPS for several months with his mates. I just rolled up Shockeye, and entertained myself with my character wanting to eat all the other members of the party.

And I’d have done exactly the same thing with the Kandyman had he been around at that time. Oh, that would have been fun. I can’t wait for my son to meet him in the summer…

The Feathered Serpent 2.5 and 2.6

The series concludes with its most blood-soaked installments yet. All three villains meet suitably grisly ends, two of the supporting cast get killed, and the makeup department gets to go overboard with blood and bruises because just about everybody else gets maimed. And this was a kids’ show. Man alive. I’ll defend Land of the Lost‘s crown as the greatest and most entertaining mindfreak for children on American television, and leagues superior to anything else we could watch in the seventies, but even at its most physically frightening – when characters are actually wounded (probably best seen in “The Search”) – it was never anywhere as gruesome or graphic as this.

But this wouldn’t have worked without the terrific acting and great performances throughout. Patrick Troughton’s at the top of his game as the villain, of course, especially when he loses his mind completely and convinces himself that he is no longer human, and his god “made flesh,” to use the cliche. I assured our son that when we see him next (in a little less than a month), he’ll be a hero again. But Brian Deacon and Granville Saxton were also really excellent in their roles, and this great script has so many twists and turns to keep everybody busy and while the outcome is never really in doubt, I spent a lot of time wondering exactly how the good guys were going to win.

That said, I think when I dust this off down the line for another screening, our kid won’t be joining me. I could see that he was riveted and paying attention while biting his lip, but when I asked whether there was anything about this that he liked, he replied “I liked it when Nasca didn’t survive!”

The Feathered Serpent 2.3 and 2.4

Things get worse, and worse, and worse. The coronation crowns of Chichen Itza are lost, the villains have captured Tozo, they’ve poisoned one of the city’s wells with a drug that causes madness, and the evil Nasca has enslaved the good, blind priest.

Our son retreated to the other sofa and curled his lip in a combination of frustration and fear. After several minutes, we asked “Are you afraid something bad is going to happen?”

And he summed up The Feathered Serpent by growling “Something bad always happens!”