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Doctor Who: The Five Doctors

When I was a kid and comics cost 35 or 40 cents, Superman’s father Jor-El was so recognizable that he was regularly merchandised. There were dolls and action figures of the guy. DC’s writers and editors were almost pathologically obsessed with telling stories of Superman’s home planet. There was a World of Krypton miniseries, and even the Legion of Super-Heroes time-traveled back to meet him. It was all very, very boring and unnecessary to me.

With that in mind, in Terrance Dicks’ anniversary adventure “The Five Doctors,” we finally say goodbye to the Doctor’s home planet for a good while. It is the most boring and unnecessary place for our hero to ever visit, and this stale feeling is driven home by the actors who play Time Lords. This is the fourth story in seven years set on Gallifrey and exactly one actor – Paul Jerricho, as Commissioner “Castellan” Gordon – appears in two of them. Even the most important supporting character, President Borusa, is played by four different actors. How are we supposed to feel any connection to any of these people?

Fans just love kvetching and kibitzing about “The Five Doctors” and all its missed opportunities, but I think the biggest one comes in not addressing these unfamiliar faces. When the Master is shown into the president’s office, he addresses the three people inside. He says “President Borusa, Lord Castellan,” and then Anthony Ainley should have looked at the woman and said “I have no idea who you are.”

But everyone loves “The Five Doctors” anyway, because it’s a lighthearted anniversary celebration and it’s fun to watch Pertwee, Troughton, and Courtney squabbling again. Yes, Peter Moffatt’s direction is incredibly pedestrian and slapdash (count how many times actors don’t respond to objects that are clearly in their sight line), yes, they could have at least given us one clear and well-lit shot of the Yeti, and yes, surely while stuck in the TARDIS, the strange alien teenager and the Doctor’s granddaughter could have found something more interesting to talk about than “what do you think the Cybermen are doing.”

Yes, the Doctor’s granddaughter is in this, but Carole Ann Ford is only allowed to play Random First Doctor Companion. She calls her Doctor “Grandfather” twice and that’s it. This is apparently because the producer at the time insisted on presenting the Doctor as an asexual figure to avoid British tabloid journalists making rude headlines about Peter Davison and his attractive female co-stars in short skirts. That’s another huge missed opportunity and a scene we should have had: the fifth Doctor introducing his granddaughter to Tegan and Turlough.

Our son mostly loved it, as you’d expect. He did that standard grumble about the Master and the Cybermen and a Dalek showing up, but then he went eyes-wide and jumped with a huge smile when he saw the Yeti. He loved the famous “Cyber-massacre” scene, where about nine of them get impaled and decapitated before firing a single shot, but his favorite part of the whole story was when the third Doctor and Sarah “zip-line” down to the top of the tower.

I really enjoyed teasing our son with the strange possible-continuity-error brainteaser about Jamie and Zoe. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury show up for a cameo as “phantoms” warning the second Doctor from going any deeper into the tower. The Doctor realizes that they’re fake when he remembers that Jamie and Zoe’s minds were erased of the period they spent with him. (The real error is that Troughton asks “So how do you know who we are.” They should both remember the Doctor, but Jamie shouldn’t know Zoe. Glossing over that, the important part is that neither should know the Brigadier. The line should have been Troughton pointing at Courtney while saying “So how do you know who he is.”)

It took our son a minute to wrap his brain around the problem. Where in his lifetime does the second Doctor come from if he knows about Jamie and Zoe’s memory wipe, when (we’ve been led to believe) that the very next thing that happened after the mind wipe was the Doctor regenerated and was shipped to Earth? I told him that we’d get a little more information about that in a couple of months, and that we’d see Patrick Troughton again in a different role in just a few days…

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Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity (parts three and four)

By far the most interesting thing about “Arc of Infinity” is that all the location filming was done in Amsterdam in the summer of 1982. Unfortunately, the story feels like it tries its best to have as little to do with Holland as possible in favor of deeply boring political intrigue on the Doctor’s home planet. Most of this serial’s faults could have been overcome by setting the whole story on Earth. They could have, for instance, had Michael Gough’s gone-bad Time Lord working in league with some human criminal who lived in Amsterdam to bring Omega back.

Oh yes, Omega, by far the least interesting thing about “Arc of Infinity,” or at least the way it’s presented. Not content with recasting all the characters who were seen the last time we were on Gallifrey four years before, they also recast the villain, and gave him a costume which wasn’t a patch on the iconic original that we saw in “The Three Doctors” a decade previously. I don’t think Omega’s even been mentioned in the program since 1973, but the show is working under the assumption that everybody watching the program knows exactly who he is.

In fairness, “The Three Doctors” had been repeated by the BBC a little over a year earlier, but this is part of that sense of complacency I mentioned earlier today. A little over a year is a lifetime in little kid terms; we watched that story thirteen months ago and it took a good bit of poking for our seven year-old to recall that the second Doctor teamed up with the third in the first place, let alone who the villain was. It’s here that we really start getting evidence that the people making the program are doing so for an audience that’s already completely committed, buys all the books, reads all the magazines, and can tell you who all the recurring villains and characters are when they turn up.

Mind you, I’m not opposed at all to villains and characters making return visits. Now I do think there needs to be a “ground zero” every few years, like we’re experiencing with Jodie Whittaker’s run right now, which doesn’t relive past glories for several weeks and lets a new audience in. But I like old faces and foes. However, these either need to be done as subtle winks and Easter eggs, or they need to be done properly, with an honest attempt at reintroduction. I mean, at no point in this story’s narrative do they even explain who Omega is; they just figured that all seven million who watched this on its original broadcast knew already. This will get worse before it gets better.

For what it’s worth, while our son was confused by the villain, he really did enjoy the story, and thought it was very exciting and creepy. He took the revelation of the baddie with a shrug; what really confused him was a street scene where the regenerated Omega joins a small crowd around a draaiorgel barrel organ. He’d never seen anything like that and needed to be reminded that once upon a time, we didn’t have the option of listening to music on our phones!

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Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity (parts one and two)

For Thanksgiving, we’re watching this turkey! Gobble, gobble!

Season twenty’s where it all falls apart for me. There are still some terrific stories ahead in the next four seasons – they average about one classic a year – and some great moments here and there, but overall there’s a sense of… I guess complacency. There’s an overriding sense of “that’s good enough” in the scripting and the design and the direction.

That said, Johnny Byrne’s “Arc of Infinity” does have one nice moment in its first two parts (and I admit I cheated; the image above is from part three). There are two plots running parallel at first: a pair of young hitchhikers sleeping in an old crypt in Amsterdam, and the Doctor and Nyssa having a contest of technobabble and continuity in space. It looks like our heroes will be materializing in the Netherlands, and we hear the TARDIS sound effect… but it’s somebody else’s ship, apparently piloted by the weird turkey monster on the left in the picture above. I like the misdirection.

The turkey monster is called an Ergon, and at no point in this story does it ever move convincingly enough to fool anybody into thinking that it’s an alien monster that grew up knowing how to move its own muscles. It moves like an underpaid actor wearing fifty pounds of latex, flippers, and a tall floppy hat.

At least there’s Amsterdam, and some other notable actors, all probably also underpaid. Janet Fielding is back as Tegan, conveniently reentering the Netherlands part of the plot while the Doctor and Nyssa get to do breathtakingly boring outer space stuff on Gallifrey. Last time we were stuck here, in “The Invasion of Time”, we had a completely different set of actors as Borusa, the High Council, the Castellan (Commissioner Gordon), and the commander (Chief O’Hara). This time, a future star of the show, Colin Baker, is playing Chief O’Hara, and Paul Jerricho, who will be back in a few stories to deliver one of the all-time great bad Doctor Who line readings, is Gordon. On the High Council, there’s Elspet Gray, who was the clueless mom in the second series of Catweazle, and starred-in-everything cult TV legend Michael Gough as an old friend we’ve never heard of before.

There are five suspects in the mystery of who on Gallifrey has betrayed the Doctor. Four of them either don’t like the Doctor very much or are generally indifferent to him. One is played by an internationally recognizable actor who greets our hero with smiles and phrases like “My dear Doctor!” and is trying ever so hard to keep our hero from being executed. I wonder who the traitor could possibly be.

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