The much-loved character actor Paul Darrow, who found television immortality as the anti-hero Avon in Blake’s 7, passed away earlier today. Darrow could chew up the scenery like nobody else, but he could also be relied upon for some nuanced and riveting performances. He was outstanding in the BBC’s 1973 adaptation of Murder Must Advertise, sharing a brilliant climactic scene with Ian Carmichael. Our condolences to Darrow’s family and friends.
“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.
Our son really enjoyed the ending of this story, as well he should. It’s a great climax, with the Silurians chased back into hibernation by a runaway nuclear reactor, and then the Brigadier – possibly acting under orders from the Ministry – destroys their base completely while the Doctor’s back is turned. Over the next few years, the Brigadier will become more of a second banana than an independent character with his own motives and agenda. When people talk about the “UNIT Family” that will emerge, it’s a family without a place for a character like this more ruthless military man.
There are two farewells in this episode. First, it’s a darn shame that Paul Darrow’s Captain Hawkins gets third-eyed by a Silurian. I believe we’re meant to assume that he is killed; he’s never mentioned again and his fate is not specifically disclosed. In a perfect world, Hawkins would take a few months to recover and become a regular in the following season instead of the new character of Yates. I’m not saying this because Hawkins is a particularly interesting character, but because Paul Darrow is such an interesting actor. I highly recommend his many fans check out the BBC’s 1973 adaptation of Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. He’s terrific in that.
But perhaps more sadly, it’s goodbye to Jon Pertwee’s forearms and his snake tattoo. After this, Barry Letts made certain that the Doctor would never again be seen either nude or in short sleeves, so that Pertwee’s tattoo, a trophy from his days in the navy, would stay covered up. I understand that there’s a fan theory to explain how, when the Time Lords changed the Doctor’s appearance, he got that tattoo as well as a new face. Well, of course there is.
The guest cast starts getting whittled down pretty massively by this point. The Silurians’ plague claimed Major Baker in the previous episode. This time, both Geoffrey Palmer’s and Peter Miles’ characters die from it. I enjoyed the location filming, which was done in late 1969 around Marylebone train station in London, and sees lots of commuters succumbing to the virus after Palmer’s character senselessly takes a train back to his ministry office despite what he’d learned in the previous episode.
Our son was very attentive this morning, and that’s a little surprising considering how very measured and slow this episode is. The scenes of the Doctor and Liz working in the lab are quite long; you can’t imagine modern television spending so much time on quiet scenes of characters mixing drugs and testing them on blood samples under a microscope. They really work; Jon Pertwee and Caroline John really sold just how heavy and critical their work is.
Still, a little levity was needed after such a dark half-hour. Having received a fright when the Silurians attack the Doctor to stop the spread of the cure he’s found, he’s kicking back in front of the TV with something much lighter now: Disney’s cartoon Robin Hood.
Another reason I think that Carey Blyton’s music for this story is the second worst in all of Doctor Who – his score for “Death to the Daleks” is even lousier – is that it completely and totally undermines the drama in a critical scene.
Here’s the situation: some of the regulars get to be bored in the conference room waiting for news from the caves, while the Brigadier, Captain Hawkins, and some men wait in a trap, and the Doctor negotiates for peace with the Silurians’ old leader. Meanwhile, a young and hotheaded Silurian decides to just infect Major Baker with a virulent plague that the Silurians used, hundreds of millions of years ago, to wipe out apes, and let him go.
The scenes of Norman Jones being cornered by the shadowy, clawed reptile-people are incredibly well-shot, especially for Doctor Who, where the unflattering and harsh studio lighting and unforgiving videotape often show off all the cracks and flaws. This should have been a scene that, like the occasional attacks in caves from Sleestak in Land of the Lost, would have had our son hiding behind the sofa.
But it isn’t, because the music in the scene tells the audience “this is a comedy.” Timothy Combe has the actors standing in menacing shadow preparing to give children nightmares, and the music is some clown with an oboe playing Yakety Sax. Our son laughed and laughed. We talked afterward about what was happening, in case the threat of the plague went over his head – it kind of did – but it was that stupid music. Nothing’s a threat with music like that.
Our son has grasped the main conflict in this problem very well. He even used an appropriate word: extinct. He says that the humans and the Silurians want to make each other extinct before the other wins. He sees that the Doctor is trying to make peace between the two sides, but he also has the mind of a six year-old who’s seen every other alien life form in this show trying to blow humanity up, and so he’s rooting for the Brigadier to get down there and blow up the Silurians first. But this episode ends with the Doctor thrown into a cage by the Silurians and one of them using its strange third eye to give our hero a psychic attack.
You may have noticed that my screencaps from this story show off some very woeful color. As was standard in the seventies, the BBC routinely wiped their color videotapes of stories, and this is one that was never returned in the old 625-line PAL format in color. The BBC retained 16mm black-and-white films for export, and an inferior 525-line NTSC color copy was returned in the eighties. In 1993, they mated the two, putting the color signal from the poorer copy into the better-resolution black-and-white print.
Fifteen years later, they improved on it somewhat, but it’s still notably below the quality of most of the other Pertwee serials. I believe that episode four is the poorest of the seven. There are lines of yellow across the red walls of the conference room throughout, and there’s a scene in the cyclotron room where Peter Miles is yelling at a technician, and the poor guy is under siege by a blue band of color on the wall behind him that is attacking his hair.
Episode four is also notable for introducing Geoffrey Palmer to the story. Like Fulton Mackay in the preceding episodes, Palmer was a very recognizable face to TV audiences in 1970, but his biggest roles were ahead of him. As Mackay became a big star with the sitcom Porridge later in the decade, so did Palmer, with the sitcoms The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Butterflies. Palmer plays the first of several civil servants and government types whom the Doctor, over the course of the next five seasons, gets to chew up and spit out.
We’ll take a quick break from this story and resume it over the weekend. Tomorrow night, more mean cave monsters.
I wouldn’t be doing my job as a blogger if I didn’t note what an unpleasantly noisy story this is. The reptile-people – we’re still not on a species-name basis with them – gave Dr. Quinn a communications device last time. It’s the sound I’m going to hear when the world ends. It’s not only that it’s mixed so blasted loud that people on the moor can hear the thing from miles away, it’s so loud and aggravating that you can safely turn the sound down to about 1 and not miss a thing.
You certainly won’t miss the music. It’s the first of three serials scored by a musician named Carey Blyton. They’re all soundtracks of the damned, but this cacaphony is played with archaic instruments like crumhorns and ophicleides that all sound like womp-womp music from an old Fleischer cartoon.
Interestingly, Dr. Quinn is shaping up to be an interesting character, a sympathetic character who’s in way over his head, and then he goes and turns into a villain. He decides to hold the reptile-person that he’s rescued from the UNIT searchers as hostage until he shares some ancient technology. For this, the reptile-person kills him. The Doctor finds Quinn’s body at the cliffhanger, and, in a great moment that had our son hiding in terror, turns just as the reptile-person comes into the room behind him.
These three episodes were Fulton Mackay’s only involvement in Doctor Who, but the actor stayed incredibly busy and popular for many years. He starred in the very successful sitcom Porridge, and took the “Doc” part in the British version of Fraggle Rock. (The series had different human-interaction segments in different countries. In the UK, Gobo went to Mackay’s character’s lighthouse to collect postcards from his uncle Matt.) But Mackay leaving this story’s narrative leaves room for another big sitcom star of the seventies to take his place in the story…
This morning, I asked my son what he thought might be going on with the power losses in the base, and he had it all figured out. He decided that the dinosaur we saw in part one was chewing the power cables! So he was a little surprised to learn there are two adversaries in the caves: the big mean dinosaur and a race of intelligent reptile-people. This is just as well; I doubt even Doctor Who‘s producers could have padded my son’s idea of a plot out for seven weeks.
The director, Timothy Combe, made the celebrated decision to keep the reptile-people out of focus for as long as possible, and it really works incredibly well. Our son was fascinated by the heavy-breathing POV shots – “It has three eyes!” he shouted – and he was really frightened when the cornered creature attacks a farmer in his hay barn. It’s very effective.
This episode introduces the third captain for the Brig. We’d met Turner in “The Invasion” and Munro in “Spearhead.” His second-in-command this time is Hawkins, played by Paul Darrow. He’s best known for his role as Avon in Blake’s 7 and still commands a legion of fans in the UK and America. Hawkins doesn’t actually do much in this episode, but I really wish he’d have become the regular second banana in season eight.