Say what you will about “Warriors of the Deep,” but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen Ingrid Pitt try to kick a pantomime horse to death.
Tag Archives: pennant roberts
Our son tells us “there are two adjectives to describe this story: exciting and creepy!” That’s very generous of him. I’d have gone with “embarrassing and idiotic” myself.
“Warriors of the Deep” is the third and last serial for Doctor Who written by Johnny Byrne. It features the return of director Pennant Roberts, who never could stage a gunfight and, as we see here, still can’t. It also sort of features the return of the Silurians and the Sea Devils, only they’ve both been redesigned to look stupider and more fake than they did in the seventies, and the actors inside the ungainly costumes have been given instructions to move and talk as slowly as possible. I mean, the Silurians of 1970 moved and shouted like they were incredibly angry and frightened. These Silurians move and talk like they are drunk and the walls won’t stop moving.
Into all this mess, we’ve got a TARDIS that can get blasted out of orbit by a 21st-century satellite, a Doctor who is acting absolutely unhinged and decides to overload a nuclear reactor as a distraction, and returning villains scripted by a writer whose research went no further than a paragraph summary of the earlier stories in a Jean-Marc Lofficier guidebook. And there’s Ingrid Pitt and a pantomime horse.
Six weeks before this was shown, Doctor Who celebrated its twentieth anniversary, leading some bean counters and muckity-mucks at the BBC to ask, not unreasonably, why in heaven they’d let this silly show run for twenty years. Maybe twenty years was long enough, some of them said. Then this gets on the air.
My eyes are still popping out of my head. We picked up the story of “Shada” from where we left off last night, with the original cliffhanger to part one, and enjoyed this presentation so much more. I’ve always liked “Shada” and have watched the 1992 version several times. My only complaint about this edition is that it’s only available as a single feature that lasts two hours and eighteen minutes. I would have preferred they kept the original episodic structure.
All of the original “Shada” recording sessions and film material were retained, so the team who worked on this could go right back to scratch and restore everything as new. The result is absolutely beautiful. Seventies Doctor Who has never looked as good as this. The lengthy animated sections are rudimentary, but what really impressed me was the new model work. They didn’t have the budget in 1992 for the comparatively lavish space station Think Tank that’s seen here.
And yes, it’s a very good story. Not “City of Death” good, true, but had this been completed in 1979, everybody would have said it was the second best production of this troubled season. The Doctor’s initial confrontation with Skagra has always tickled me, and our son completely loved the bicycle chase, all the K9 action, and the mind-control fight of the climax. He thought it was “super exciting” and says that the monstrous Krargs were “awesome.” Then again, we’re clearly not doing our job as residents of Tennessee. During the bike chase, the Doctor races past a vocal group on a street corner singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Our son didn’t recognize the song! Sorry, Glenn Miller. I thought it was ubiquitous…
The restored and completed “Shada” will be released in North America in November. That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll start looking at season eighteen in about three weeks. Stay tuned!
There may be one or six readers who visit us here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time who don’t know about “Shada.” For them, briefly, the situation is that Douglas Adams wrote a six-part serial to wrap up his year as script editor for Doctor Who. Actors Denis Carey, Victoria Burgoyne, and Christopher Neame, among others, joined the cast and director Pennant Roberts in Cambridge in October 1979 for location filming. Then they returned to London for what should have been three studio recording sessions. They finished the first, rehearsed the second, and then a years-long dispute between the BBC and one of the technician unions blew up.
The cast were locked out of the studio, it didn’t get resolved in time for other productions on the calendar, the actors’ time-sensitive contracts expired, and the show was formally axed shortly afterward. Adams and the program’s producer, Graham Williams, got to end their time on Who with a story that was cancelled. Some of the film footage was used as “new” material four years later in “The Five Doctors,” and even more of the script was used as “new” material in Adams’ 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. He also used with the climax of “City of Death,” which I always thought was a bit cheeky of him.
In 1992, BBC Video released a “best that could be done” version of “Shada,” with a small budget for some visual effects and editing. It was overseen by the show’s last producer, John Nathan-Turner, and featured music by Keff McCulloch, who evidently didn’t actually watch the visuals that he was scoring, along with an introduction and linking narration by Tom Baker, kind of sort of in character but also wearing a pretty nice suit. This version later made its way to DVD in a three-disc set with a boatload of extras and the fab, feature-length documentary More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS. Tonight, we sat down to enjoy the first twenty-ish minutes of this story in its 1992 incarnation.
And enjoy’s the right word. For ages, with only a fan-assembled compilation of the footage making the bootleg rounds to view, one school of thought in the eighties said that “Shada” was a lost classic, that it was the epic we should have got. Other, much grouchier people pointed out that the two previous “epic” six-part serials that Graham Williams had produced were “The Invasion of Time” and “The Armageddon Factor,” neither of which blew anybody’s mind, and really, why should anybody expect this would have been all that different from “The Horns of Nimon,” which should have been the story that led into “Shada,” and not the season finale it became.
Simple. “City of Death” was, after all, very, very different from “The Horns of Nimon.”
I think that “Shada” is completely wonderful. It’s by leagues the best evidence we’ve got that Pennant Roberts had such a good reputation as a director, because the location work in Cambridge is just fantastic, and the scenes set in Professor Chronotis’s oddball shambles of a room in Cambridge’s St. Cedd’s College are delightful. Not very much happens in part one, but it’s very witty and very fun to watch, and I love Christopher Neame stomping around Cambridge in his sci-fi villain costume and not attracting anybody’s attention. The bit about the inhuman babbling of undergraduates always slays me, and there’s better still to come.
At least I think there is. I haven’t actually seen what comes next. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow morning.
This is so interesting. I’ve never, ever rated Pennant Roberts’ work as a director. When I was a loudmouthed fan repeating and recycling received wisdom in the eighties and nineties, I always singled him out for stick, and really, nothing of his that we have watched over the last three months – observed through adult, critical eyes – has shown me wrong. But he seems to have given both “The Sun Makers” and “The Pirate Planet” a certain power and energy that totally resonates with seven year-olds. Despite last night’s shock, and another one in tonight’s session I’ll discuss in a moment, our son absolutely loved these two stories. He wasn’t on the edge of his seat this evening, because he was either in the floor or on the other sofa. He was in heaven!
Even before the climax, K9 gets to have a gunfight with the Captain’s robot parrot, which is called the Polyphase Avatron. Douglas Adams had a gift for naming things, didn’t he? Now, I don’t envy Pennant Roberts’ job here. Managing gunfights in the BBC’s old three-camera “taped-as-live” studio format often foiled some of the best directors the BBC ever had. But poor Roberts had to try to make this compelling when one of the characters is a squat, bulky, remote-controlled tin dog, and the other one was a motionless prop blue-screened onto the picture.
Last night, after our son went to bed, we watched “The Last Lonely Man,” a third season episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown that was directed by Douglas Camfield, who many people believe was the best and most talented director working in British television during this period. (The episode, which co-stars Peter Halliday and features music by Don Harper, was broadcast one month after his Who serial “The Invasion”, which also featured Halliday and Harper.) I mention this because not even Camfield could have made the fight between K9 and the robot parrot work to adult eyes, but our kid completely loved it. When K9 later emerges with the dead parrot somehow stuck to his mouth, you couldn’t find a happier viewer among millions.
The other thing that alarmed our kid was the Captain’s plan to teleport his pirate planet to Earth and destroy it next. We’ll see the Cybermen make a similar threat a few months from now, and I bet he won’t worry half as much as he did tonight. So, grudging respect to Pennant Roberts tonight, as I am reminded again that the absolute best way to watch something with fresh eyes is to do it with your kid.
Oh, good grief. This can’t mean that he’s going to enjoy “Timelash,” can it?
(We’ll give Douglas Adams a chunk of the credit, though. The little dude has spent literally the last twenty minutes talking excitedly about teleporting planets. He’s going to absolutely love The Hitch-Hikers’s Guide to the Galaxy when his mother reads it to him later on down the line.)
You just can’t ever tell with kids, can you? I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t anything in tonight’s serial that would frighten our favorite seven year-old critic, but I was wrong. The plot did. Give this kid hideous slimy or robotic alien menaces bent on world conquest and he can handle it, but the climax of part two of this story reveals that the villains controlling the planet Zanak are in the big leagues. Their planet is hollow, and they teleport it around the galaxy, crushing slightly smaller planets inside of it and strip-mining them of resources. The planet’s population is kept stupid and ignorant, and left happy with streets full of trinkets like diamonds and rubies. Our son told us this was horrifying. He’s right, of course, but conceptual horror doesn’t usually bother him like a big rubber monster, you know?
This great big concept is the first contribution to Doctor Who from the beloved writer Douglas Adams, who was working on these four scripts at the same time he was writing the first radio series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This has led many, many people to consider and analyze the similarities in tone and humor between the two. “The Pirate Planet” is an incredibly witty story with our hero running rings around blustery and stupid villains with incredibly rich vocabularies. The Captain is more than a little similar to Hitch-Hiker‘s Vogon guard, the one who was not impressed by the hero humming Beethoven.
Well, the ones that talk, anyway. Bruce Purchase’s Pirate Captain is a hilarious joy, but he’s surrounded by some of the most incompetent nincompoops in the world of henchmen. These must be the most pathetic guards in all of Doctor Who, which is really saying something, and in part two they get involved in what must be the most pathetically-staged gunfight in all of Doctor Who, which is… also really saying something.
In fact, my only complaint about this story is the direction. After doing a pretty good job with “The Sun Makers” the previous season, Pennant Roberts really let everybody down with this one. It even opens with a laughably poor miniature set that is shot on videotape instead of film and so it succeeds in looking precisely like those phony little places from Far Out Space Nuts. This is kind of funny to me, because a month ago, I had intended to talk about how Roberts shot some scenes on film that really would have been much more effective on videotape, and with this season’s adventure, he got them the other way around.
In an interesting continuity note, Romana refers to herself as a Time Lord for the first time in this adventure. In the previous story, she identified as coming from the Doctor’s home planet, but didn’t use that title. She also mentions a father who bought her an air car for her 70th birthday. Time Lords very rarely ever mention relatives, but at this stage in the program, Romana’s a posh girl with a rich daddy. She’s probably been name-dropping for decades.
The most important thing to note this morning is that our son really, really enjoyed this adventure. It’s easily one of his favorites from this Doctor. He didn’t get frightened or scared, but he got into things hugely. When the workers begin their uprising, he was cheering them on. He also had a blast with the cliffhanger to part three. It’s a very well done moment, with the pressure rising and only seconds to go before Leela is steamed to death in a public execution, and one sadly undermined by the total lack of urgency in part four as the Doctor rescues her, but wow, his eyes were as wide as they get and his feet kicking furiously as the credits rolled.
Our son says he had two favorite moments: he loved that buggy in part three, and he loved the Doctor’s confrontation with Henry Woolf’s vulgar Collector. This great scene ends with the Collector reverting to his true alien form and shrinking down into his survival chair, and he was imitating the villain with shouts of “Liquidate, liquidate!”
I’ve always thought this was a pretty good story, but I enjoyed it even more this time around. Woolf and Richard Leech are a great double-act, and they get all the best dialogue. I loved it when the Collector gets a scent of the Doctor’s moral outrage and sneers about it being the “vicious doctrine of egalitarianism.” I was also intrigued by the Collector researching the Time Lords and the Doctor, finding them a commercially non-viable target, and the Doctor himself a very well-documented thorn in the side of countless oppressors and tyrants over the centuries. If you remember that scene in 2008’s “Forest of the Dead” where the Doctor tells the Vashta Nerada “Look me up,” I think its spiritual ancestor is this little bit.
I think “The Sun Makers” is sometimes overlooked because it doesn’t have a monster, and because the black limbo sets are unconvincing, and because all the location filming in the basement of some building succeeds in making this look nothing like Pluto in the year six million and exactly like the basement of some building. But the script and the acting are so fantastic! I enjoyed seeing this one again almost as much as our kid enjoyed seeing it for the first time.
I was all set to talk and talk about the choices that director Pennant Roberts made in using 16mm film versus videotape in this story, and then our son derailed my thoughts by “collapsing” at the sight of the buggy that the armed guards on Pluto use in their long, weird corridors when it shows up at the cliffhanger to episode two. “It has seven turbo machine gun cannons,” he told us! All I saw was a dressed-up golf cart. There’s more proof we should all be watching television in the company of children. Sometimes they’ll appreciate the things that you overlook, and sometimes they’ll keep their boring old dad from writing an even more boring blog post than usual.
What I was going to say was that Robert Holmes’ story “The Sun Makers” marks the debut of Anthony Read to the show as its script editor, a post he’ll hold for the rest of this season and all of the next. It features some very entertaining guest performances by Richard Leech and Henry Woolf as the money-obsessed villains who drug Pluto’s population and burden them with inhumane tax rates. Michael Keating, who would join the cast of Blake’s 7 right after making this story, also has a small role as one of Pluto’s rebels, but the real fun is watching everybody bowing and scraping to Leech, and watching Leech bowing and scraping to Woolf.
Our son was, of course, mostly taken by K9 and the buggy, but he paid good attention tonight and enjoyed the adventure, even if he’s vocally outraged by how evil the company that runs Pluto is. We had a pre-show chat about some things he knows about that might help a seven year-old understand this story. Earlier this year, we visited The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge and saw some examples of company scrip, which Appalachian mining corporations would issue to exploit their workers. We also talked about the good that comes from paying taxes, but how it would be wrong for the government and the only job on the planet to be one and the same, and for that job to collect taxes from the wages that they pay you. There’s even a tax on medicine, which is pretty cheeky considering the population is all on the verge of nervous exhaustion from the hours they have to work and the fear drugs pumped into the air conditioning.
In other words, this is the sort of society that we’re going to greatly enjoy the Doctor knocking over when we sit down for the next half!