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Doctor Who: The Awakening (parts one and two)

A while back, I said that in the mid-eighties, Doctor Who got complacent. Example one: “The Awakening” is the first story since “Black Orchid” two years previously to have no returning villains. As such, it’s really a breath of fresh air. It’s also incredibly fast-paced for the period, proving that quite a lot of Doctor Who could have been done in about half the time, and it makes the two serials on either side feel even slower by comparison.

I’m happy that “The Awakening” gave our son a couple of good frights. He said this one was very scary, and he hid under his blanket at least three times. It’s about a big stone creature called the Malus that’s been hiding in a church wall for centuries. It feeds on psychic energy and possesses lesser beings into committing violence to feed itself. There’s some guff in the script about spaceships and probes from the planet Halkol to keep this from being a simple, old-fashioned ghost story. All you need to know is that it’s a big animatronic face in a wall that roars and belches smoke and makes people want to kill each other. This may not be art, but it’s a trillion times better than “Warriors of the Deep.”

Joining our heroes this time out, there’s a great guest cast. Back in “Kinda,” the Doctor basically took guest star Nerys Hughes on as his companion of the story. This time, it’s Polly James, who was Hughes’ co-star from the seventies sitcom The Liver Birds. (Oddly, very little of that show – only two of its nine series – has been released on DVD. Still, only £15.09 right now, I might pick that up…) Anyway, as much as I like Janet Fielding, it’s fun watching Peter Davison explaining all the space stuff to good actors with good comic timing like Polly James. Plus, there’s the great Glyn Houston as a villager who finds himself on the heroes’ side, and Dennis Lill as the main baddie.

I also like the way this story ends, with a pile of guest stars agreeing with Tegan and Turlough that it’s high time the Doctor takes a break and everybody’s just going to stay on Earth for a few days. That’s partially because it’s a cute scene, and partially because I’m very naughty and once had an audience laughing hysterically as I made up some very inappropriate fanfic to horrify a very “trad” fan in an explanation what the Doctor got up to in Little Hodcombe. It ended with her screaming “There’s no canonical evidence that happened!”

But I also like the idea that one day in Little Hodcombe, the Doctor was reading the newspaper and saw that there was a charity cricket match in the nearby village of Stockbridge. If you are not familiar with Marvel’s run of Fifth Doctor comics, then I can’t recommend them highly enough. They were written by Steve Parkhouse, and drawn by Dave Gibbons, Mick Austin, and Steve Dillon, and they fit almost perfectly in the space between this story and the next TV one. They’re all collected in the Panini edition The Tides of Time and are huge fun. (I say almost perfectly because they use the version of Rassilon that Parkhouse had invented for the comic in 1981, before he showed up in “The Five Doctors” as a totally different character. Just handwave it or call him Dumbledore or make up some inappropriate fanfic and it’ll all work out.)

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Doctor Who: Warriors of the Deep (parts three and four)

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.

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Doctor Who: Warriors of the Deep (parts one and two)

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.

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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: The King’s Demons (parts one and two)

Fans often ask what in the sam hill producer John Nathan-Turner was thinking, deciding that Doctor Who needed a robot companion. These fans often forget that they were ever kids. When I read that Radio Times / Starlog 20th Anniversary magazine back in 1984, I was incredibly anxious to meet Kamelion, and incredibly confused that while he’s listed right there on page 20 as a companion, he isn’t mentioned in the previews for any of the forthcoming adventures.

Our son quite liked the appearance of Kamelion as well. It distracted from the Master showing up again, to his growling disapproval. Kamelion came about when its designers showed the robot to Nathan-Turner, thinking that an appearance on Doctor Who might be good for business. Nathan-Turner kind of went a little overboard with enthusiasm and made the robot a companion. Unfortunately, the robot required too much time-intensive and laborious programming to be reliable for a seat-of-your-pants TV show with frequent last-minute script changes, and then its chief programmer was killed in a tragic accident at sea. So instead of having the robot transform into a guest star of the week until they could write it out, they just didn’t mention it in any way whatsoever until they could write it out. Kamelion is completely forgotten onscreen, although fan writers and novelists have made sure that the robot had many more adventures.

Actually, you know what Kamelion reminds me of? In 1991, the designers of a much bigger robot showed it to Universal, thinking that an appearance on some new TV show might be good for business. Universal then sold NBC on a two-hour pilot called Steel Justice, in which a cop magically brings his dead son’s toy robot to life, leading to a twenty-foot tall “robosaurus” breathing fire at bad guys. The big difference is that Kamelion is probably housed in somebody’s collection, while the “robosaurus” can probably be seen at a monster truck show near you next weekend. (Nobody believes me when I tell them this, because the robot is just so stupid, but the whole angle of magically animating your dead kid’s toys made parts of that film quite eerie and odd. Nevertheless, NBC didn’t buy a series. Can’t imagine why…)

“The King’s Demons,” which was the last Who adventure written by Terence Dudley, isn’t all that exciting, but it’s a simple and short story which has lots of swordfighting and a joust, and an interesting collection of guest stars. Gerald Flood plays the imposter King John and provides the voice of Kamelion. Isla Blair and Frank Windsor play the local barons who are caught in the Master’s plot. I enjoyed how Windsor and his Softly, Softly co-star Stratford Johns both showed up in The Avengers a few weeks apart in 1968. It’s not quite the same, but Johns had been in a Who in 1982 and Windsor popped in the following year.

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Doctor Who: Enlightenment (parts three and four)

On one end of the spectrum, there’s that run of Doctor Who stories in 2013 which is all about the mystery of Clara, the mystery of Clara, the mystery of Clara. On this other end in 1983, you’ve got this seventeenish year-old alien who was hanging out in a posh private school and making secret murder contracts with immortal evildoers and practically nothing whatever was mentioned about it. I just can’t help but feel there’s a comfortable medium somewhere between them.

As annoying as it got in the spring of 2013 having every single story revolving around the Doctor investigating what his companion is up to and who she really is, it was still preferable to the cone of silence that was dumped on Turlough. This could have been so interesting. There are whacking great chunks of “Terminus” where Tegan and Turlough literally have nothing to do because the plot is happening elsewhere, but instead of writing some dialogue about this new character, all they say is “we’ve got to get out of here.” All of “Terminus” was a missed opportunity, but I’ll go to my grave thinking they could have improved things by having the two just sidelined and waiting and talking. “So where are you from, and what were you doing on Earth?” Even if Turlough didn’t want to answer these questions – I suspect that nobody had really bothered at this point to figure them out yet – why wasn’t the incredibly inquisitive Tegan asking them?

There are a few scenes in “Enlightenment” where Turlough does seem to act like a cowardly kid around seventeen years old. Usually, he’s not depicted that way. He’s a nebulous early-twentysomething in the hands of the scriptwriters, and just as every subsequent adventure is going to forget that this one ends with Turlough asking the Doctor to take him back to his home planet, every subsequent adventure is going to forget that the character is a teenager.

I shouldn’t complain. The program is just about to forget a character entirely. You want to talk about slapdash…

Fans sometimes debate whether the Doctor knew that Turlough was in league with the Black Guardian, and whether the Doctor had the right to put Tegan and Nyssa in such danger by bringing him on board without telling them his suspicions. I kind of like the friction between the Doctor and Turlough, and at least it gave Davison, who was very, very frustrated by the experience of making the show, something different to do.

I think the problem is that “Enlightenment” doesn’t have a payoff. We can guess that the Doctor knew the Black Guardian was behind this from the beginning and had taken lots of steps that we didn’t see to ensure his enemy would lose. I’ll find a thing or ten to complain about Steven Moffat’s six seasons when we get there, but credit where it could be due: Moffat would have made the end of “Enlightenment” completely spectacular, and Davison could have played the hell out of a tables-turning scene where the Doctor reveals that he was steps ahead of his enemy the whole time.

Instead, the Doctor just stands there. It’s not an impressive ending.

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Doctor Who: Enlightenment (parts one and two)

Our son has grasped the existential horror behind Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” quite well, I think. “They scoop out the memories of the people on the ship the same way we scoop ice cream out of a bowl and eat it!” He’s really enjoying the story. Part one ends with a terrific cliffhanger revelation, and the whole story is built around mystery, so it’s got his brain working overtime.

“Enlightenment” is the first story in the Doctor Who canon to be written and directed by women. It was Clegg’s only script for the program, but one of several serials in the early eighties that Fiona Cumming helmed. Familiar faces in the cast include Tony Caunter as one of the crew of this strange Edwardian-era racing yacht and Keith Barron as its captain.

I’ve always thought this was a good story, but not an especially gripping or thrilling one, so I’m glad that our son’s enjoying it, and giving the Black Guardian an appropriate level of evil eye action. But as much as he enjoyed the first cliffhanger, the second one fell flat. It should have been a memorable one – Turlough leaps to his apparent death rather than being stranded for all eternity on a spaceship he can never leave – but our son remembered that a character had literally just explained there’s an energy screen keeping them safe. “He’ll just land on the screen,” he interjected. As it will turn out, he doesn’t, but I’ve watched this a dozen times and never caught that.

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Doctor Who: Terminus (parts three and four)

In whatever time zone this is, there’s a company that accepts some kind of payment to cure the degenerative Lazar’s Disease. Doing this as cheaply as possible, they’ve learned that a certain kind of radiation works sometimes. So the company enslaves a bunch of ex-military grunts and gets them hooked on a drug. They use them as labor, along with a big wolf-dog monster that is not affected by the radiation. The old space station where this radiation can be found via an engine leak is monstrously unsafe, but the Company figures they’ve got decades before it fails, so they pay their slave labor with drug supplies that arrive on an automated drone ship with the latest batch of Lazars. They sit back and profit while the money’s still good.

If “Terminus” had been about that, it might have turned out entertaining. But all these pieces aren’t even put together until the final episode, and so this isn’t a story about the Doctor overthrowing a profit-obsessed “health care” company. “Terminus” is actually all guff about an exploding engine ending the universe, and running up and down lots of corridors that are just plastic sheeting and duct tape. Actually, because the sets are so small, the actors never even run to prevent the end of the universe, they just walk with urgency.

And I’ll tell you what sounds like the end of the universe: the drug addict guards wear these uniforms which are layers of armored plates of plastic molded to look like copper with a design of bones. Every time the actors move, you hear the constant squeaking and thumping of the plastic plates rubbing and bumping against each other. I wish the next time this story gets remastered for home video, they’d work on the sound mix and edit all that out.

“Terminus” was Sarah Sutton’s last story as Nyssa, as her character stays behind to improve conditions on the old space station. Nyssa gets a sweet final scene with the Doctor and Tegan, but she doesn’t say goodbye to the new character Turlough, who isn’t going over well with my family. Discussion after the story was centered around why the Black Guardian has drafted somebody so utterly incompetent as Turlough to kill the Doctor, and why he didn’t make an offer to an assassin or someone like Boba Fett. I think it’s because “eh, that’ll do” seems to be the mission statement of the producer and script editor this season. No wonder it was around this time that Peter Davison decided that he’d finish his three year contract and move on.

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