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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts three and four)

You may not believe this, but for me, the most memorable moments in “Planet of Fire” aren’t actually Nicola Bryant’s scenes in her bikini, delightful though those all-too-short scenes are. It’s not even the surprising – and surprisingly sad – farewell to Kamelion, as the robot begs for death and the Doctor obliges him. It’s not even anything to do with the terrific Peter Wyngarde, because he is so amazingly wasted in a role that just about anybody his age could have played.

No, the best part of “Planet of Fire” is the cliffhanger to part three and the great little bitchfest between the Master and Peri. After a third episode that’s even more boring than I remembered, it ends with the terrific surprise that the Master has accidentally shrunk himself and has been controlling Kamelion from a little control room about the size of a shoeshine boy’s box. This shocked our son so much that he fumbled his exclamation, shouting “What the world – wide – world?!” as the credits rolled. In part four, Peri gets a great moment when the Master, having scurried to his ship’s console and hidden inside, continues threatening her and she’s not having it. “You come out here and say that,” she shouts, and we all laughed. The scene honestly isn’t very well staged, but Anthony Ainley and Nicola Bryant sure did play it well.

But there’s another interesting thing about “Planet of Fire,” and that’s the departure of Turlough. All along, he’s felt like the producer and writers had no idea what they wanted to do with this character, and some of what’s revealed here seems very, very contradictory to what they were saying about him just months previously. Turlough was apparently a junior military officer on the losing side of a civil war on the planet Trion. So he’s presumably older than I thought, which makes his apparent “incarceration” in a boarding school even more ridiculous.

This is what they do with military prisoners on Trion: sentence them to go to school on less developed planets, where they will steal cars and pester the unpopular kids, under the watchful eye of a “strange solicitor” in London? Honestly, even knowing already about Turlough’s nonsensical past, it makes even less sense watched cohesively. It’s an early example of what would later exasperate me about The X Files or Lost. If you come up with the story in the first place, instead of inventing something later on to link all the jigsaw pieces together, it stands a much better chance of making sense!

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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts one and two)

Peter Grimwade’s “Planet of Fire” is the third Doctor Who story in a row to elicit just a shrug, but man alive, this one should have been better. There’s location filming in Lanzarote helmed by Fiona Cumming, a great guest star, errrm, the Master and Kamelion but never mind, and the debut of a new companion. It’s Peri, who becomes the first American to travel in the TARDIS.

I won’t hear a bad word about the actress who plays Peri. Her name is Nicola Bryant, and not only is she a perfectly good actress – and Peri gets a few really great scenes in later stories – she’s a fabulous ambassador for Doctor Who. Nobody’s paying her to be a positive force in fandom. This is a show she left thirty-plus years ago, and she’s still singing its praises and welcoming new actors to the family. (Plus, if you like dogs, she’s a great advocate for animal welfare and is always sharing pictures of her family pets on Twitter!)

But because I contradict myself and contain multitudes, I can call myself a fan of Nicola Bryant and also think that casting a British actress while claiming the new character was meant to appeal to the show’s new American audience was an unusual decision. (See the comments for more on that topic.) Peri’s always divided opinions. I bet that for every person I’ve ever met who liked Peri, I’ve met five who just spit nails at the mention of her name. That said, I have always wondered how the character would have gone over had the BBC found a way to get a known American actress, such as, say, Lisa Whelchel, who was Blair on The Facts of Life, to play Peri?

I was keen to get more input from my son into this critical situation, but he had a very long day, was very over-tired, and his initially pleasant surprise that Kamelion was actually present in this story eventually turned sour when the Master turned up as well. He didn’t have an opinion about Peri and I don’t think he paid very much attention to part two of this story at all.

Joining the regular cast in Lanzarote, there are a few fellows in old-fashioned robes, chief among them the great Peter Wyngarde. Unfortunately, Wyngarde is playing another dreary religious lunatic. You don’t suppose all these prophecies about a strange being called Logar are going to have a scientific explanation in the final episode, do you? Stopping Nicola Bryant from being the only woman with a speaking part, Barbara Shelley is here as well, but she doesn’t have very much to do. She’s so irrelevant to the plot that she just gets to appear in the studio material back in London, having missed out on the trip to Lanzarote.

Well, hopefully our son will wake up for part three, and it won’t be as much of a snooze fest as I remember. Fingers crossed!

Photo credit (Lisa Whelchel): https://www.pinterest.com/mercyjacobs/

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part four)

The dude on the right is Mawdryn, played by David Collings, a character actor that everybody loves and who we saw a few months ago in “The Robots of Death”. He and his seven fellow mutants are not wearing the most fashionable in outer space wear. Marie called their clothes “terrible bridesmaid dresses.” Even when you’re missing a chunk of your scalp, it’s hard to look menacing dressed like that.

But Mawdryn isn’t a traditional villain. He and his gang stole some Time Lord tech several centuries ago and have been trapped in perpetual, mutating rejuvenation ever since. All they want now is to die, and by chance, the Doctor has shown up. Apparently he can exchange the potential energy from each of his remaining eight regenerations to kill all eight of the gang, but he’ll never be able to regenerate again himself. As motivations go, I think that’s incredibly original. It’s also a little convenient, what with the numbers working together like they do, but that’s fiction for you.

I’m glad to say our son came around in the end. As I remembered, there’s a good bit of padding in part four, reminding everybody of the plot, emphasizing all the relevant points again and again, but there are enough moral dilemmas and runarounds to keep things moving, and our son was very happy with the adventure. It even ends with an explosion! It may not be a great story, but it made a splendid recovery from that lousy opening installment.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (parts two and three)

Our son is putting on his usual airs of the story being “too creepy,” but he’s really synced in with the adventure. There’s a bit in part three where Tegan, keeping watch in the corridor, spots the seven mutants gliding her way and she jumps back to warn everyone. Our kid jumped right in time with her, leaving his shoes behind.

The problem with “Mawdryn Undead” is that it could have been the best two-part story the show ever made in its original run, and the best by a mile. It might have made an excellent three-parter. Unfortunately, it’s lumbered with that godawful opener, and I’m afraid part four will kind of run in place a bit to fill its running time. But these middle episodes are just cracking with imagination and originality. Once the story finally decides to place the Brigadier in the center of things – two Brigadiers, in 1977 and in 1983! – Nicholas Courtney gets to really shine. And who can’t sympathize with our old friend when he grumbles about “yomping up that wretched hill” three times in one afternoon?

I really think that all of Steven Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stories from his run have their genesis here. When Moffat was a fanboy, he wore out his off-air videotape of this adventure from rewatching it over and over.

Of course, another thing our son’s pretending to be aggravated with is the return of Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian, after his brief but memorable appearance in part six of “The Armageddon Factor” a little over three years previously. About the only thing I don’t like about these episodes is the casual way the Doctor has decided to just take Turlough’s knowledge of alien science at face value without challenging him on it. Clearly he knows something is up with this kid – and since, despite casting an obvious twentysomething in the role, Turlough can’t be much older than seventeen to still be at this posh private school – even though he doesn’t know that the Black Guardian is the one manipulating him.

Dyall is amazing, a real force of nature. After he gets done yelling at Turlough in the school clinic, I want to go give the poor fellow a hug and order him some milk and cookies to calm his nerves. And I don’t even like Turlough.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part one)

“Mawdryn Undead” is a four-part serial written with passion and enthusiasm by Peter Grimwade, directed with either disinterest or contempt for the material by Peter Moffatt, and featuring music by Paddy Kingsland that sounds like a joke B-side from one of Erasure’s earliest singles.

As I’ve mentioned before, many Doctor Who adventures from the serial days will start strong before petering out. “Mawdryn Undead” is possibly unique in that it becomes a good, interesting story with a great idea at its core, but it begins with what is very nearly the worst first episode in the whole of the program. The first episode of “The Twin Dilemma” is even worse, but that serial never gets any better as it goes along, so the mind-crushing awfulness of the first part of “Mawdryn” is an amazing standout.

And, in fairness, I should concede that Kingsland’s music also gets a little better as the story continues, but the dumb, jaunty “joyride” music that accompanies the young men pretending to be teenagers in their straw boater hats as they steal the car will be stuck in my head on my dying day. I’ll talk more about Turlough, one of the biggest missed opportunities in the whole series, another time. Suffice it to say for now that in 1982-83, Doctor Who was in such a dumb headspace that they honestly thought that making the school bully into a companion was a good idea.

Even the effects defy suspending disbelief. Most of the time, when Doctor Who gives us a show-stopping terrible special effect, it has the decency to wait until the end of the serial, and it almost always looks like the work of very talented people who did their very best with the time and money available and just couldn’t quite bring it off. Four minutes into “Mawdryn” and Turlough is supposed to be having an out-of-body experience on the astral plane, and all that the visual effects team bothered to do was switch on the background animation from a game show hosted by Wink Martindale.

But here’s what really gets my goat. Here’s your big guest star this week: some guy.

Come off it. There’s never been a worse directorial decision than Peter Moffatt’s stultifying choice in reintroducing Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart*. Turlough and “Hippo” do not name the owner of the car they steal. There could have been a line like “This is that retired brigadier’s car,” for starters. No, an actor with his back to the camera says “How are things on your end, Brigadier?” and we’re supposed to recognize the man who responds to that line as the same man who we know by his military uniform and mustache, and who had not appeared in the program in eight years.

This is the lazy work of a show that is not trying. Everybody involved has figured they can pull it off because they wager that the only people watching will have read about it in magazines and newspapers ahead of time. They’re letting the PR department announce the character so they don’t have to bother. I made a different bet: that Marie and our son wouldn’t have a clue who this guy was, and I was right. Marie noted that he was called “brigadier,” but didn’t realize it was Lethbridge-Stewart, because after twenty-five minutes, the script still hasn’t identified him as anybody we’ve ever met before.

At least it gets better. The next episode is almost terrific.

*Although another candidate for this honor would be Peter Moffatt again, two years after this story, reintroducing the Sontarans by way of an establishing shot from about a hundred yards away.

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Doctor Who: Earthshock (part four)

In 1966, over the course of a legendary twelve-part serial, two of Doctor Who‘s companions were killed. They were both created to die; Katarina and Sara were only around for five weeks and eight weeks respectively. Adric’s death was quite different. And the fallout, in the next episode, is one of just a couple of things about that story I enjoy. Is that enough foreshadowing for you readers?

As kids, we were glad to see Adric go. As a character and as a performance, Matthew Waterhouse’s look and costume, and his often petulant portrayal, all seem almost specifically designed to annoy male teenagers. There are probably essays about why viewers of that age disliked Adric so intensely. I’ve written in the past about how I watched Who in a vacuum in the seventh grade. By the time the Peter Davison years started showing on our PBS station, I was in the eighth grade, with a different set of classmates. Not only was my older pal Blake watching, but so were four or five of us in Pod 8A in late 1984. We were all about thirteen and we all detested Adric. The feeling, I learned, was widespread. Eighteen months later, Peter Davison was at a convention in Atlanta and explained by way of an explosion noise into a microphone what he thought Adric’s best moment was and the whole room applauded.

But as for the viewers in the seven year-old age bracket, the one in our house was incredibly surprised and taken aback. His older brother and sister were also in elementary school when they saw this story and were also stunned. Smaller kids like Adric. He’s not the awkward, oily-haired kid in the school A/V club to them but a young hero to look up to.

As a grownup – assuming I can be called a grownup – of course I’ve come to like Adric more and more, especially seeing him through my kids’ eyes. It’s true that Matthew Waterhouse’s performance and line delivery often take me out of the fiction, to say it mildly, and I do like the way that Adric doesn’t even get to die heroically. He’s at least granted a stoic finale, and the music is subtle and perfectly in tone with the moment. For the only time in the show’s history, the credits of part four roll silently. The camera lingers over Adric’s broken gold star badge while the program gives one of its main characters a moment of silence, and I think it’s done extremely well.

It’s certainly the best in-the-show death any companion’s probably ever going to get. I’m never pleased when they undermine the drama of a death with a get-out clause a week or two later, as Steven Moffat did as often as possible. This was done right, and I really enjoyed it. Adric may or may not have been a great character, but he got a terrific ending.

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Doctor Who: Earthshock (parts two and three)

Well, what I was going to say last night, before our son went and stole my thunder, is that “Earthshock” is a very popular and very entertaining story written by Eric Saward and directed, with incredible tension and a frantic pace that Who rarely employed as effectively as here, by Peter Grimwade. It featured the return of the Cybermen after seven years away from the program.

And it features Beryl Reid, interestingly, as one of the main guest stars. Reid is one of those names in British entertainment largely unknown to Americans, but I’m assured that she’s a very curious choice. It strikes me as part of the same spirit of season nineteen, where we’ve seen more prominent “guest stars” better known for starring comedy roles than ever before, rather than returning to the usual bench of character actors. I mean, sure, you want somebody to play the chief constable in a quiet English village in 1925, you go to Moray Watson (or you phone Glyn Houston if Watson turns it down), but I like seeing people like Reid, Nerys Hughes, and Michael Robbins in parts like these.

(I’ve also been oddball-casting what this season of Who would have looked like as an American show in 1982 to drive home just how strange these choices are. I figure Karl Malden as Monarch, Penny Marshall as Dr. Todd, and John Ritter as Richard Mace. I can’t quite decide between Betty White or Jean Stapleton as Captain Briggs.)

Anyway, in the nineties, fandom started turning on “Earthshock” because it’s full of tough men with guns trying to be macho. There’s more of this to come in the Eric Saward years, which is a disappointment to people who only want Doctor Who to be about Tom Baker trading witty insults with Julian Glover. That said, I’m not looking all that forward to a couple of upcoming adventures which don’t have the great bonus of Peter Grimwade’s direction. Considering the severe limitations of videotaping gun battles “as live” in a studio, the shootouts in “Earthshock” rank among the best in the whole program.

And they had our kid on the edge of his seat, up off his seat, hiding behind the sofa, and having a complete blast. He says that he totally loves the action in this story, but he’s also simultaneously protesting that the Cybermen are too scary. “I like action, but the Cybermen are about domination, not action!” That, and their thumbs are mean, we mustn’t forget.

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Doctor Who: Earthshock (part one)

“Oh, come on! Come on!”

Was that a cool cliffhanger, Little Dude?

“No! It was NOT a cool cliffhanger!”

Really? Don’t you want to see what happens next?

“Duh, yeah!”

Well, a cool cliffhanger makes you want to see what happens next. So…

“But it’s the Cybermen! And they’re TOO MEAN!”

They’re too mean?

“The Cybermen are mean! They are TOTALLY mean! Even their thumbs are mean! They’re even meaner than the Daleks! The Daleks are only HALF-mean and the Cybermen are all mean. They want to take over EVERYTHING!”

Millions of opinions about Doctor Who have been voiced in fifty-five years. I think I like this one best of all.

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